Lab Rats Listen to Mozart, Become Maze-Busters
Patrons once swooned as cellist Frances Rauscher gilded concert halls with the angelic melodies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Now an experimental psychologist, Rauscher still plays Mozart. But her stage is a fluorescent-filled university laboratory in Oshkosh, Wis. Her audience? Row upon row of laboratory rats in wire cages.
Their beady eyes never blink, even when she programs a CD player with the composer’s sublime “Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos.” But something profound occurs within their tiny brains as they listen to the scales, intertwining, intertwining, sometimes for a dozen consecutive hours.
The score makes them scamper faster and more accurately through a maze even days after the music stops. This Rauscher knows from her latest experiment in a groundbreaking series of studies exploring a phenomenon known as the “Mozart Effect.”
She suggests that the music stimulates specific neuron connections in the abstract reasoning center of the brain and, in essence, makes the subjects smarter.
So Mozart turns rats into maze-busters. But does it have a similar effect on humans?
The answer isn’t so clear. In previous experiments by Rauscher and others, college students who listened to the same sonata subsequently scored higher on intelligence tests. And separate experiments showed that children who took piano lessons also scored higher on intelligence tests.
It might mean, as they suggest, that music enhances a listener’s ability to solve problems in time, space and sequence--skills critical in math, science, engineering, architecture.
Or, scientific rivals retort, it might mean they like music.
The proof may rest inside the rats’ heads. Starting with humans and proceeding to a simpler animal model is the reverse of the typical scientific approach, Rauscher acknowledges.
But medical ethics and the limits of technology prevent her from peering inside human heads to see if Mozart prompts neurons to make new, extensive connections that improve intelligence.
So she’s reduced to examining rats’ brains. About the size of a fingernail, the rat’s brain hardly corresponds to the human’s in size, complexity or capability. But, Rauscher reasons, at least she doesn’t have to worry whether the animals are running the maze faster because they like Mozart.
“If we can find these changes in animals’ brains after being exposed to Mozart,” she says, “then I think it gives you a new understanding of what might be happening in human brains and how it might relate to human behavior.”
For all the glamour of gala recitals in New York or Paris, it is here in the company of rodents, with her cello locked away, that Rauscher finds herself more fully exploring both the genius of the 18th-century virtuoso and the basics of brain development.
Now Rauscher, at age 42, hears more Mozart in the lab than she did 15 years ago when she burned out and abandoned a more traditional pursuit of music.
Even now she has mixed feelings--at least about the “all Mozart all the time” auditory diet that she feeds her research subjects. “I’m so sick of it I could die,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. It’s so annoying.”
Maybe so, but her results may be worth hearing.
Some ambitious parents are pulling the plug on Barney and piping “The Jupiter Symphony” and “The Marriage of Figaro” into their nurseries. Last spring, an elementary school in suburban Denver played Mozart while students took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and scores rose 4 to 8 percentage points.
But other scientists caution that the Mozart Effect remains unproven, even if they are intrigued by Rauscher’s results thus far.
“Especially in the area of psychology, it is rare that one makes a discovery that is so counterintuitive,” says Harvard experimental psychologist Howard Gardner. “Even if it turns out that human beings are differentially affected by Mozart, who would have thought that rats would show the same results?”
However, Gardner does not wholeheartedly endorse the Mozart Effect. Two decades ago, he suggested that musical intelligence is one distinct form of the “multiple intelligences” that people exhibit.
Now he is willing to reconsider that musical intelligence might not be a separate form of intelligence, but one aspect of spatial-temporal intelligence: the ability to imagine solutions to complex problems. But Gardner wants the Mozart experiments repeated successfully by other laboratories and expanded to test other forms of music too.
“We are very far from knowing that it is the music of Mozart that is producing these effects,” Gardner says. “Rats have tremendous spatial abilities whereas they have little or no musical abilities as far as we know.”
In the rat experiments, Rauscher played the sonata’s first movement 12 hours for each of the first 60 days of the rats’ lives. Then she repeated the procedure with separate groups of rats using white noise and a recording by minimalist composer Philip Glass.
Then the rats ran a maze, three times a day for five days. By the third day, the Mozart rats were fastest, averaging 35 seconds, with fewest mistakes. White-noise rats averaged 44 seconds; Philip Glass rats averaged 50 seconds.
The reason, according to Rauscher and her research partners, may rest with the Montcastle cluster, a specific bundle of brain cells in the cortex, or the thinking center in mammals’ brains. They believe these cells, used in spatial tasks and reasoning, are “hard-wired” from birth to respond to music.
Music may engage several centers of the brain. But certain types of music such as Mozart’s, with its complex structure and irresistible melodies, may directly stimulate and perhaps reorganize cells in the Montcastle cluster in ways that other music does not.
Rauscher now is dissecting the rats’ brains to see if, overdosed on Mozart, the neurons have reached with their finger-like roots known as dendrites to make more, and different, connections to surrounding cells. The results will take months to assemble and analyze.
“When we decided that there must be some kind of physical changes going on, I realized we have to get into these brains,” Rauscher says. “We’re hoping to find some kind of greater dendritic branching.”
Coincidentally, the experiments have generated new speculation why Mozart was so uniquely gifted. At age 4, he mastered his first musical composition, a scherzo, within 30 minutes. At 5, he composed an andante in C major for the harpsichord. His first opera opened to raves in Milan when he was 14.
By his death, at age 35 in 1791, Mozart had composed brilliantly and prolifically--more than 600 pieces in all. But perhaps most remarkably, he composed almost without error. Entire arrangements, down to the final inflection, flowed from his quill pen with nary a correction.
Contemporaries of the composer called this Mozart’s “divine gift,” but researchers have long suspected unique brain activity. “It is almost as if his brain had been set to produce a certain number of melodies and compositions per unit of time,” says Harvard’s Gardner, who studies the psychology of creative genius. “Mozart simply followed the dictates of his nervous system.”
The Mozart Effect experiments push that notion a step further. Rauscher’s colleagues suggest that the cell cluster now under examination in rats may have been uniquely developed in Mozart’s brain.
“Mozart’s music appears to have a structure that our brains perceive as natural,” says Gordon Shaw, Rauscher’s mentor at UC Irvine. “He may have been directly tapping that neural structure and its language when he composed.”
Whatever the outcome of her experiments, Rauscher’s life is already inextricably entwined with Mozart’s.
She was a prodigy herself, offspring of music theorists and student at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. The grind of lessons and touring began at age 3. Then, in her 20s, drained of her passion for music, she quit.
Her complaint--burnout--echoed those of actors, figure skaters and other young performers who relinquish a normal childhood for a shot at stardom. “I was racked by guilt when I wasn’t practicing,” she says. “Even when I was eating dinner, I felt I was doing something wrong if I wasn’t practicing.”
But music, and specifically Mozart, became the core of her psychology research into nonverbal communications while she worked 15 years to earn a doctorate at Columbia University and, most recently, secure her own laboratory space at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
And Mozart in the lab has provided the personal life that eluded her on stage.
In 1991, while a postdoctoral fellow at Irvine, Rauscher telephoned her boyfriend in New York, also a concert cellist, for help in selecting the pivotal passage to play in the experiments.
Holding the receiver to the stereo speakers, he played snippets of different Mozart CDs for her evaluation 3,000 miles away. Without comment, he slipped in the “Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos.” A duet?
His choice cemented the relationship--they’re engaged--as well as the experiments. “It works perfectly,” Rauscher says.
However, Mozart did fail to rekindle Rauscher’s passion for the cello. That part of her life remains locked in its case.
“I picked it up once six years ago, and it sounded horrible,” she says. “Playing is too much a part of my self-concept to do it badly, and I don’t have time to play it well.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.