The futility of vaginal speakers for the unborn
Despite an industry around it, no research data shows that playing music to babies in the womb will boost IQ
BabyPod is designed to make the unborn baby smarter by playing music through the mother’s vagina
Many parents take great pains to help their children, some even to the extent of attempting to enhance the brain of the unborn baby in the mother’s womb. The latest example to catch my eye in this regard is a device called BabyPod, which is designed to make the unborn baby smarter by playing music to him/her through the mother’s vagina. I kid you not: this development is described by Ana-Marija Dolaskie on July 7th in the regular bulletin of the American Council on Science and Health.
Although there is some evidence that stimulating the brain by listening to music, or in other ways, can very temporarily improve cognitive functioning in children and adults, no data exists to support the idea that exposing the unborn baby to music will produce a smarter baby.
In 1993 Frances Rauscher and others published a study in Nature (October 14th, 1993) in which young adult students were given a series of mental tasks, before each of which they either listened to 10 minutes of silence, 10 minutes of relaxation instructions or 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata. The students who listened to Mozart subsequently performed better at tasks where they had to create shapes in their minds. However, this enhanced ability is temporary, lasting only about 15 minutes.
Further research followed showing that this temporary effect, called “the Mozart effect”, could be achieved by listening to any type of music that appeals to you. Most studies were done on adults. In 2006 a large study involving 8,000 children showed that listening to pop music was even more effective than listening to Mozart.
The consensus among experts now is that not only music but anything causing cognitive arousal, such as listening to a story you like, will produce this temporary Mozart effect.
On the other hand, Dr Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist from Western University in Ontario, Canada, is quoted as saying that learning to play a musical instrument can slightly help your brain on a more permanent basis. Taking piano lessons for a year, plus regular practice, can increase IQ by two to three points.
The 1990s research on the connection between listening to music and improving the mind encouraged thousands of parents to play classical music to children and babies. Inevitably this practice was extended to playing music to the baby in the womb in order to give him/her the best possible start, although no research data shows that this will make the baby smarter.
The simplest way for a woman to expose her unborn baby to music is to play the music stereo as she goes about her normal activities. The volume should not exceed 50-60 decibels, equivalent to the sound of a quiet dishwasher. The amniotic fluid that surrounds the foetus conducts sound well.
Some research indicates that, from about 18 weeks, the foetus can hear and respond to music by moving. But nobody knows what these movements mean. Babypod.net shows a video of an unborn baby “jiving” spontaneously to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and opening and closing its mouth as if singing along. I’m not sure why, but I found this video very funny.
Some mothers-to-be play music to the foetus by placing padded speakers on their tummies. But the BabyPod website claims that “the only way that music can really reach the baby is vaginally”. BabyPod is a tampon-sized speaker that the woman inserts in her vagina. This speaker is connected through a lead to her smartphone, on which she selects the music.
I find it touching that a pregnant woman would want to communicate with her unborn baby through music, clearly believing that the foetus is fully human. However, there is no data to support the hypothesis that listening to music makes unborn babies smarter, although the babies may well enjoy the music. It also seems to me that simply switching on the music in the background is sufficient to effectively broadcast the music to the foetus – no need to shove a music speaker into your private parts.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC, http://understandingscience.ucc.ie