Are neuroscientists causation happy?

Prof Glen Schellenberg is a giant in the field of music training and brain development. His paper of Music Learning and IQ was an incredibly important study when the field was in its infancy. His work has continued to rigorously examine the validity of the studies and findings within the field. As he works towards his retirement from academia, his work is putting forward some very important questions for the next phase of the research.

Prof Schellenberg is a psychologist. It is important to be aware of which lens we look at the field of music learning and brain development through. When I visited his lab in Toronto he challenged me to always consider the competing lenses through which this research is being conducted. In a nutshell, neuroscientists look at the brain activity and from that may extrapolate educational outcomes and impacts. Psychologists look at the behavourial activity and from that possibly extrapolate the same outcomes and impacts. Neuroscientists say if the brain is activated in certain ways it translates to certain outcomes, but a psychologist may argue that between brain activity and action is filtered by behaviour. These are two lenses, both may be right or wrong, but they are two perspectives we should keep in mind.

In this paper, Prof Schellenberg compared 114 articles about music training and brain development and then analysed the titles and abstracts for the inference of causational (one action causes another) findings and correlational (a connection between two things) findings.

He found that:

“Inferences of causation were common in both disciplines, but the problem was particularly acute among neuroscientists, with their odds of inferring causation more than twice as great as those of psychologists.”

He then suggests that:

“The results highlight a narrow-minded focus on learning and the environment among researchers who study music training, as well as an apparent disregard of findings from studies of far transfer, behavioural genetics, and other factors that distinguish individuals with or without music training.”

What does this mean for us in the BBB community? It means that when you read research papers or quotes from researchers in the scientific press, you take note of which lens they are looking through – the neuroscientist’s or psychologist’s one.

Read more here


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