Why Does Music Evoke Memories?

We’re all familiar with this phenomenon: You listen to a song, and a rush of associated emotions and memories come flooding back to you, and you’re immediately transported to a certain time when that song played a significant part in your life.

Earlier this year, I started listening to a song that I hadn’t heard in a while, when I suddenly recalled a time about two years earlier when I had started listening to it copiously. I marveled at the way it captured the exact feelings, mood and emotions that I’d felt when I had just started listening to it during that time. It’s a strange feeling; you can’t call it nostalgia, because it doesn’t necessarily make you long for the past in the same way playing an old video game makes you all rosy-eyed for your childhood. No, music evokes something far more realistic and powerful that simply cannot be reduced to the meagre effects of ‘nostalgia’. It is something that far transcends the realm of nostalgia.

Why, then, is music so effective at stirring up vivid memories? What can possibly explain this powerful relationship between music and memory?

A number of recent studies have attempted to explain the neuroscience behind the phenomenon, stating that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain.

In one study, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson, from University of Newcastle in Australia, examined the effect of popular music on severely brain-damaged patients in an effort to find music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs). A small sample of people with acquired brain injuries (ABIs) were played snippets of “Billboard Hot 100” number-one songs in a random order. The songs, which were released in the patients’ lifetimes from age five onwards, were also played to five control subjects with no brain injury. All of the participants were then asked how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories it evoked, if any. The researchers found that the frequency of recorded MEAMs was about the same for patients and controls. The majority of MEAMs were reported to be of a person, people, or a life period, and were typically positive. Songs that triggered a memory were noted as being more familiar than songs that did not.

A previous study at the University of California, Davis found that the region of our brain where memories are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links memories, music, and emotion. The study mapped the brain using fMRI while people listened to music and found specific brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and activities are linked to familiar music. The hub that activated the music is located in the media prefrontal cortex region, right behind the forehead — and one of the last regions to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer’s disease. According to Petr Janata, the study’s author, this discovery may explain why music elicits such strong responses from people with the disease.

To assure the best chance of his student subjects associating music with memories from their past, he had his subjects listen to excerpts of 30 different songs from “top 100” charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years old. After every excerpt, each subjected responded to questions about the song, including how familiar and enjoyable it was and whether it was associated with any particular incident, episode, or memory.

The surveys revealed that, on average, a student recognized about 17 of 30 excerpts, and of these, 13 were moderately or strongly associated with an autobiographical memory. Like the recent Australian study, the songs that were linked to the strongest memories were the ones that evoked the most vivid and emotion-filled responses. When Janata looked at his fMRI images and compared them to these self-reported responses, he found that the degree of prominence of the memory corresponded with activity in the upper part of the media prefrontal cortex, which supported his hypothesis that the brain region links music and memory.

So, what does this all mean for the relationship between music and memory? Baird and Samson conclude from their study that “Music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories and may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia, but only in patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory and intact pitch perception.”

The results of these two studies seem pretty statistically significant, meaning there could be some evidence to reject the null hypothesis, which is the idea that music does nothing to evoke memories. Of course, the fact that the responses were self-reported always leaves open the possibility that the studies were flukes. And while I think that playing popular songs in “Top 100” charts was the best course of action for this type of randomized study, I would like to see another study where subjects listen to several songs in their library (which may or may not necessarily be their favorites) instead. In general, I don’t think many of the Top 100 songs stood as an example of the songs that evoked THE strongest or most emotion-laden responses from the subjects. So an experiment where subjects listen to various songs from their own music library could trigger even stronger memories, or MEAMs, and further explore the idea that brain region is linked to music and memories. One drawback of this method would be that not everyone is equally ‘into’ music (hence why playing popular hits for the subjects in the two studies was a good procedure), but it could be somewhat evened out by utilizing a much larger sample size.

Nevertheless, the implications arising from the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and music-evoked memory remain endlessly fascinating. Petr Janata concludes that because autobiographical memories linked to music seem to be spared in people with Alzheimer’s disease, one of his long-term goals is to use his research to help develop music-based therapy for people with the disease. Music can also be used for those with depression, as it can help people recall difficult parts of their lives that were not as bad as they had originally thought.

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