NO MIND BOOST FROM MUSIC?

In “Brain-Changing Games,” writer Lydia Denworth stated, “With practice, a violinist can play a Mozart string concerto beautifully, but that will not make her better at much else.” Is she not aware that there are more studies on the benefits of learning musical instruments and art on the mind than on the benefits of video games?

Gabriel Newman
via e-mail

DENWORTH RESPONDS: Although there have been studies showing transfer from music, nearly all of them have been called into question in recent years. Much of the literature makes the mistake of inferring causation from correlation and fails to control for confounding variables. A forthcoming study from Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga, who studies transfer from music specifically, shows that the association between music lessons and cognition disappeared when demographics and personality are held constant. In addition, studies of adult professional musicians show no cognitive benefits over comparable professional nonmusicians.

For more information, please see the recent ScientificAmerican.com blog post at http://tinyurl.com/music-smarts.

EYE MOVEMENTS FOR ANXIETY

In “Can Eye Movements Treat Trauma?” [Head Lines], Tori Rodriguez cites new evidence that eye movements are an effective ingredient in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In our column “Taking a Closer Look” [Facts and Fictions in Mental Health, December 2006/January 2007], however, we cited a large body of other evidence that contradicts that claim. At best, we can conclude from the mixed results only that further research is needed to resolve the issue. People seeking treatment for anxiety should not feel compelled to seek out EMDR if a competent therapist is available to deliver standard exposure therapy.

Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld
via e-mail

YOUNG ADULT BEHAVIOR

The title alone of “Yet Another Stage of Life?” [Perspectives] suggests that author Robert Epstein is disgruntled at the plight of the members of this “emerging adulthood,” who just can't seem to “launch” themselves into the rarefied class of grown-ups. I was far from convinced by his hypothesis: that the presence of the term will inevitably be detrimental to the individuals it describes by providing a socially acceptable condition for uncertainty and inaction.

Epstein seems to be frustrated that the label “emerging adulthood” is being used to validate the languor of young people and annoyed that what was once deemed failure to grow up is now integrated into the accepted path to adulthood. He says it's “imprudent ... to suggest that most or all individuals that age are inherently unstable and unfocused.”

I was not aware that such a severe suggestion was so widespread. Although there are plenty of young individuals in their twenties whose lives are marked by “identity explorations,” “instability” and “self-focus” (and by the way, who is to say these are bad things?), there are plenty whose lives are not, who would probably claim that the negative stereotypes Epstein associates with emerging adulthood don't apply to their situation.

Whether they do or do not does not matter: it is important to remember that young people shouldn't let stereotypes dictate how they progress through life and that the emerging adults of today are faced with a myriad of inhibiting circumstances that the author's generation did not have to face.

Matthew Didisheim (age 24)
Missoula, Mont.

EPSTEIN REPLIES: The problem with stage-of-life concepts such as “emerging adulthood” is that they sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating expectations that generate and perpetuate the stereotypes that they describe. This has certainly happened with adolescence, a stage of life many Westerners now mistakenly believe has always existed everywhere, even though it is still almost entirely absent in more than 100 cultures around the world. In the U.S., teens, parents and even many therapists believe that it is normal for teens to be in turmoil or in conflict with parents, and everyone behaves accordingly.

When our young people finally escape the culture-driven chains of adolescence, do we really want to trap them for another decade in a new “stage” in which they are again expected to perform badly?

Epstein addresses the recent “discovery” of emerging adulthood. Has any research been done on emerging adulthood (and adolescence, for that matter) in the two million to four million American children being homeschooled? It seems to me that here is a ready-made population with a single common factor—these children are not sitting with a roomful of age-graded peers for up to 12 years—that could be studied discretely. As a veteran home educator who has experienced firsthand the maturity of most homeschooled children, my prediction is that the labels “adolescence” and “emerging adulthood” would not stand.

Susan Gibbs de San Martin
Ossining, N.Y.

EPSTEIN REPLIES: The writer's instincts appear to be correct. Studies show that young people who spend most of their time with responsible adults rather than with peers—one of the hallmarks of homeschooling—seem to be able to avoid the turmoil that is so typical of American adolescence and, in turn, the immaturity and uncertainty of the post-teen years here.

SCIENCE IN THE COURTROOM

“Your Brain on Trial,” by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Robert Byron, was an outstanding exploration of our courts' disconnect from the powers of modern science. But the authors made two errors. First, in describing the exoneration of Ronald Cotton and the subsequent DNA match to another man, Bobby Poole, Lilienfeld and Byron state that Poole “was identified definitively by DNA evidence as the rapist.” To opine that the semen was the result of a rape and that Poole acted alone requires a leap of faith. Forensic evidence can answer critical questions, but it can never prove a person's guilt or innocence on its own.

Second, the authors fail to state that postconviction exonerations are as much the result of a subjective interpretation of evidence as the original convictions. Oftentimes exonerations are an effort by the courts to pick the lesser of two possible evils, the worse being wrongful incarceration.

John M. Collins, Jr.
Chief Managing Editor Crime Lab Report via e-mail

LILIENFELD AND BYRON RESPOND: In the case of Ronald Cotton and Bobby Poole, the rape had already been established at trial. Therefore, the DNA evidence did essentially prove who committed the forced penetration. In addition, postconviction proceedings impose a much higher standard of proof than do initial trials; courts are extremely loath to overturn jury verdicts.

Because the demonstration of innocence after conviction must be airtight in almost all circumstances, most such efforts fail. The fact that petitions that are based on DNA succeed is a testament to the strength of the scientific evidence.

ERRATA

In “Stolen Memory,” by Dwayne Godwin and Jorge Cham [Mind in Pictures], January/February 2013, the top sentence in the first panel of the cartoon should read, “One in eight older Americans has Alzheimer's disease.”

“Is Cocoa the Brain Drug of the Future?” by Daisy Yuhas [Head Lines], March/April 2013, misstated Catherine Kwik-Uribe's profession. She is a nutrition scientist.