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Figuring out what to make of research is never easy, and we have a story now that shows just how badly research can be misinterpreted. It's about the so-called Mozart effect - the idea that listening to Mozart can enhance your intelligence. NPR's Alix Spiegel talked to the woman who first researched that idea.

ALIX SPIEGEL: It all started with this sound.

(Soundbite of music)

SPIEGEL: In the spring of 1993, psychologist Frances Rauscher played 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata for 36 college students, then gave them a test of their spatial reasoning. She also had the students to take the test after listening to 10 minutes of silence, and 10 minutes of a relaxing voice.

And the results of this experiment, says Rauscher, seemed pretty clear.

Dr. FRANCES RAUSCHER (Psychologist, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh): And what we found was that the students who had listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on the spatial temporal task.

SPIEGEL: Now Rauscher emphasizes that the test measured only a certain kind of spatial intelligence, and that's all.

Dr. RAUSCHER: It's very important to note that we did not find effects for general intelligence, just for this one aspect of intelligence. It's a small gain, and it doesn't last very long.

SPIEGEL: In fact, the so-called Mozart Effect lasted only about 10 to 15 minutes, which is what Rauscher wrote in the single page paper she subsequently published in the journal Nature. And personally, Rauscher didn't expect many people to be interested in this finding. Then came the call.

Dr. RAUSCHER: The first call came from Associated Press before I even knew the paper was coming out. And then, all of a sudden, once it broke in Associated Press, it was everywhere. I mean, we had people coming to our house and interviewing us for live television. I had to hire somebody to handle all the calls that were coming in.

SPIEGEL: Now the headlines were less subtle than her findings: Mozart makes you smart was idea. For some reason, this notion completely gripped the American imagination.

Dr. RAUSCHER: I mean, we walked into Virgin Records one day, and there was a whole kiosk of Mozart music and quotations from our paper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SPIEGEL: And then, Rauscher says, things started to go south. For instance, she got misquoted by a TV program which made her seem like she was saying rock music wasn't cognitively good.

Dr. RAUSCHER: When that happened, I started getting phone calls, literally death threats, from people that were so offended that I would say that rock music was bad for the brain. So I had to get an unlisted number. It was crazy.

SPIEGEL: But worse, Rauscher says, was that her very modest finding started to really be wildly distorted.

Dr. RAUSCHER: Somehow or other, the myths started exploding that children that listen to classical music from a young age will do better on the SAT, they'll score better on intelligence tests in general, and so forth.

SPIEGEL: In fact, after hearing about the research, in 1998, Georgia's then-Governor Zell Miller decided to distribute free classical music CDs to every baby born in the state of Georgia. Tennessee did the same, and eventually a small cottage industry of Mozart CDs for toddlers and babies sprung up.

So why is it that all of this came from such a modest study? Rauscher thinks it's probably a couple of things. Americans believe in self-improvement, but also quick fixes. And she says parents care desperately about their children.

Dr. RAUSCHER: I mean, they want to do everything they possibly can for their children, and if there's a possibility that this might help in some way, that's what they're going to do.

SPIEGEL: Now, Rauscher still stands by her original finding, but says subsequent research shows it's not really about Mozart. Any music that you find engaging will do the same, basically because it stimulates you.

Dr. RAUSCHER: I think the key to it is you have to enjoy the music. If you love Pearl Jam, you're going to find a Pearl Jam effect.

SPIEGEL: Britney Spears?

Dr. RAUSCHER: I don't know. Maybe.

SPIEGEL: The Christina Aguilera effect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAUSCHER: I like the Ella Fitzgerald Effect.

SPIEGEL: And with that in mind, here's something to make all you Public Radio listeners much smarter for the next 10 minutes.

Britney, take us out.

(Soundbite of song, "Circus")

Ms. BRITNEY SPEARS (Entertainer): (Singing) All the eyes on me in the center of the ring. Just like a circus.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "Circus")

Ms. SPEARS: (Singing) Don't stand there watching me, follow me. Show me what you can do. Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor. Just like a circus.

KELLY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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