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12/08/2005

The Baby Mozart effect

You know, an awful lot of people are crazy about Baby Einstein videos. We were given one — Baby Mozart Music Festival — as a gift when Charlie was born, but as I was, I thought, implacably opposed to exposing him to television of any sort at this age, I hadn't even taken it out of its wrapper.

Then one evening Charlie started albuterol. A single hit turned him into a whirling dervish — well, a crawling dervish — of a shrieking baby banshee. Documented side effects include aggression, agitation, dizziness, excitement, increased heart rate, irritability, and overactivity.

Irritability and overactivity. If we'd had a chandelier, he'd have been swinging from it. If we'd had a radiator, I would have chained him to it. If we'd had a blowgun and some rhino tranqs, I would have — wait, even I have standards. Instead, as hour two of the post-albuterol rampage began, I did what the friend who'd sent the video suggested: I Einsteined him.

Einsteining, says our friend, is what he does to his son when he needs him to sit very, very still and very, very quietly. From Charlie's behavior I extrapolated that Einsteining is also the thing to do if you need to sedate your child enough to perform the most delicate of neurosurgery without the modern blessing of chemical anaesthesia.

Just don't get between your baby and the screen, because he won't hesitate to seize your trephine drill and turn it on you.

As soon as Charlie noticed that the screen of the television, which we do not turn on while he's awake, had changed from a flat gray expanse to a gay panorama of dancing light and color, he grabbed the nearest toy, crawled as close to the TV cabinet as he could get, and settled comfortably onto his haunches. For the next 20 minutes, he chewed, drooled, and stared, neck canted back at an impossible angle, utterly immobile in his mesmeric ecstasy.

That's some disturbing shit right there, my friend.

Now you may have heard of the so-called Mozart effect. In the early '90s, two researchers found a temporary increase in certain test scores after subjects listened to a Mozart piano sonata. As word of this study spread, the researchers' findings, which were limited and quite specific in scope, were misconstrued, misrepresented, co-opted, and reduced to a laughable simplicity: Listening to classical music makes babies smarter.

The researchers, of course, disavow any such conclusion, and so do I. In my capacity as a noted behavioral researcher (A Little Pregnant, J. Do babies respond favorably when you cut up apple into the same size matchsticks as cheese, their favorite food, and treacherously attempt to bamboozle them into eating it? J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2005 Dec; 44[12]:1241-8.), I watched the video, and I watched Charlie. And based on an admittedly small sample (n=1), I have concluded instead that watching DVDs of cheap plastic toys makes babies dumber. Or at least demonstrably more slack-jawed, unresponsive, and stuporous.

In case you haven't seen a Baby Einstein video, I will describe the premise. Classical music plays in the background, occasionally interleaved with animal sounds or instrumental versions of childhood classics, such as "Old MacDonald." Onscreen, you see mechanized plastic toys doing their battery-operated thing; executive desk toys swooping hypnotically; unappealing puppets wandering aimlessly by; still photos of animals; and a metronome clacking back...and forth...and back...and forth, with a paper cutout of, I don't know, a giant squid glued to its shaft.

Charlie. Was. Transfixed.

I, on the other hand, was more than a little disturbed. I hated seeing what just a few minutes of television — even without Elmo, violence, or those nauseating commercials for Lamisil — did to my active, curious boy. I know this particular response, the Baby Mozart effect, is what enables many parents to get a shower, to dash off an overdue check to the electric company, to sneak into the broom closet for a few minutes alone with the Jaegermeister, and, believe me, I respect that need. I know I'll feel it again myself, and I can't absolutely swear I won't eventually turn to videos for the sake of convenience.

But I can swear that Baby Mozart will never make its way into my DVD player again. I hate that goddamn thing. I hate it so much I made a substitute. If you're a parent who occasionally requires video diversion for your children, please consider my version (QuickTime, 5692K, ~5:30) instead. Disney makes no money off it, no penguins are forced to climb a hellish, unending stairway to nowhere, and all participating puppets were paid union scale.

And I solemnly promise you this: it will not make your child one iota smarter.

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