Columns / Discourse / September 21, 2011

Musings on Life: The psychology of musical memories

I received a Tumblr link from a friend back home while I was on one of my late night procrastination binges on the internet. It was a whole list of things that a college student should do or keep in mind, copy-and-pasted from – what I found after some Google searching – an MIT Admissions blog entry by this guy named Ben Jones, Director of Communications at MIT, entitled “50 Things” (you should check the list out if you haven’t read it already). My favorite “thing” was item number 3:

“In college more than ever before, songs will attach themselves to memories. Every month or two, make a mix CD, mp3 folder, whatever – just make sure you keep copies of these songs. Ten years out, they’ll be as effective as a journal in taking you back to your favorite moments.”

In the good ol’ spirit of liberal arts education, I questioned: Why is it so easy for people like me to associate certain songs with memories of past events?

I couldn’t really find any detailed explanation (if you are a Psych student, we need to talk) but according to Petr Janata, a neuroscientist at the University of California, the medial pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, which is just behind the forehead, is responsible for recognizing chords and key changes in songs. He found that the same area lighted up under MRI scans during self-reflective and autobiographical activities, which lead him to conduct a study on 13 students where they were put under a brain scanner and were played music samples from songs randomly chosen from the “Top 100” Billboard charts from when the students would have been 8 to 18 years old. When they felt that the song triggered a memory strongly, they would signal the researchers.

What Janata found was that when this happened, the brain scan showed “spikes in mental activity within the medial prefrontal cortex, triggering vivid and emotion-filled responses”. He says, “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.”

Janata also brought up the subject on how Alzheimer’s patients could sing along and “brightened up” when they heard familiar songs (re: The Notebook). That’s really impressive and makes music seem like some magical savior, but it’s more of the fact that this “prefrontal cortex” is actually one of the last parts of the brain that remain “intact” in patients. Nevertheless, it is reassuring that perhaps when I am old and forgetful, songs could help me recall memories.

I guess you wouldn’t really need a study to prove those effects of music because most of us have experienced it for ourselves (unless you are part of the 1% of the population that is truly tone deaf), but I found this interesting, too: a study done in 2003 at KSU found that many of the subjects who were aged 18-20 had vivid memories associated with the same specific song (that song was Ice, Ice, Baby, by the way).

For most people in our age group, music almost always accompanies the things we do. Parties serve as a main example – maybe a certain song was playing during that memorable dance. Maybe when some incident happened, a song was playing on your iPod. Maybe something funny happened on a road trip and that song was playing on the radio. The music is almost everywhere that it sort of actually does become a soundtrack we associate things with. “That’s why oldies stations are so popular — not because the music is good but because it reminds us of specific times in our lives,” said Richard Harris, professor of Psychology at KSU.

And the things we remember? Maybe they’re some details of what happened, but most importantly, it’s so easy to remember the feelings. Here’s a quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Music is known to affect the hormone levels of cortisol (stress), testosterone (aggression), oxytocin (nurturing behavior) and endorphins too, so that probably explains all the emotion.

As a freshman I am in no position to be giving advice to anyone, really, but I’m going to start compiling and keeping a reminisce-playlist because I think it’s a great idea. If you start one, be sure to share it with your fellow music lovers too!

Ayesha Fariz

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