Two myths of the brain: the Mozart effect and the gray color of matter

Have you given any thought to the color of your brain? Maybe not, unless you work in the medical field. We have all colors of the rainbow in our bodies in the form of blood, tissue, bone and other fluids. But you may have seen preserved brains sitting in jars in a classroom or on TV. Most of the time, those brains are a uniform white, gray or even yellowish hue. In actuality, though, the living, pulsing brain currently residing in your skull isn't just a dull, bland gray; it's also white, black and red.

Like many myths about the brain, this one has a grain of truth, because much of the brain is gray. Sometimes the entire brain is referred to as gray matter. Mystery writer Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot often spoke of using his "little gray cells." Gray matter exists all throughout the various parts of the brain (as well as in the spinal cord); it consists of different types of cells, such as neurons. However, the brain also contains white matter, which comprises nerve fibers that connect the gray matter.

The black component is called substantia nigra, which is Latin for (you guessed it) "black substance." It's black because of neuromelanin, a specialized type of the same pigment that colors skin and hair, and it's a part of the basal ganglia. Finally, we have red -- and that's thanks to the many blood vessels in the brain. So why are preserved brains chalky looking and dull instead of spongy and colorful? It's due to the fixatives, such as formaldehyde, that keep the brain preserved.

 

Don't you just feel cultured when you tune in to a classical music station and take in an opera or a symphony by a great composer like Mozart? Baby Einstein, a company that makes DVDs, videos and other products for babies and toddlers incorporating classical art, music, and poetry, is a million-dollar franchise. Parents buy the products because they believe that exposure to great art (like Baby Mozart DVDs and CDs) can be good for their children's cognitive development. There are even classical music CDs designed to be played to developing fetuses. The idea that listening to classical music can increase your brainpower has become so popular that it's been dubbed "the Mozart effect." So how did this myth start?

In the 1950s, an ear, nose and throat doctor named Albert Tomatis began the trend, claiming success using Mozart's music to help people with speech and auditory disorders. In the 1990s, 36 students in a study at the University of California at Irvine listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata before taking an IQ test. According to Dr. Gordon Shaw, the psychologist in charge of the study, the students' IQ scores went up by about 8 points. The "Mozart effect" was born.

A musician named Dan Campbell trademarked the phrase and created a line of books and CDs based on the concept, and states such as Georgia, Florida and Tennessee set aside money for classical music for babies and other young children. Campbell and others have gone on to assert that listening to Mozart can even improve your health.

However, the original University of California at Irvine study has been controversial in the scientific community. Dr. Frances Rauscher, a researcher involved in the study, stated that they never claimed it actually made anyone smarter; it just increased performance on certain spatial-temporal tasks. Other scientists have been unable to replicate the original results, and there is currently no scientific information to prove that listening to Mozart, or any other classical music, actually makes anyone smarter. Rauscher even said that the money spent by those states might be better spent on musical programs -- there's some evidence to show that learning an instrument improves concentration, self-confidence and coordination.

Mozart certainly can't hurt you, and you might even enjoy it if you give it a try, but you won't get any smarter.