Earlier today I hopped in my car, popped my aux cord in the headphone jack on my phone, and fumbled my fingers around the screen until music began engulfing the speakers around me. I quickly found myself surfing the neuronal waves flooding my mind, carving the funnel made by an ocean of memories. Back and forth I slid up and down my wave until I lost my balance and fell, crashing into a memory of the first time I heard the song that was now playing. I sunk down deeper, passing mental sea creatures along the way, until I was fully transported to a different time and space.
When Music Conjured my Memory
Completely lost in thought, I felt the same vivid emotions I had felt the night of the memory. I saw the old DVD player that was playing the Beatles CD through the t.v. speakers, I felt the people around me and I listened in on the conversation I had with them. But, I was still sitting in my car. I could see every little detail I had spent the last 7 years or so forgetting. As John Lennon sang the lyrics, “Don’t let me down…” I experienced the raw beauty of implicit memory.
Most of our memory and the research surrounding it focuses on a different type of memory known as explicit memory. This is the stuff you need to consciously work at to remember. Implicit memory though, is the type of memory that works behind the scenes and is unconsciously remembered.
Grounding Back to Reality
As I sat there entranced in lost emotion, the song began to hit its final chords and the memory dried up around me. I was back from my sea of mind, now hunching my back in bad posture and staring through the window in front of me. With my implicit memories no longer in my mind’s eye, I felt a rare sense of awareness that provoked questioning why all that had just happened.
This wasn’t the first time a song had produced extraordinary memories for me, and it’s something that isn’t unique to me. As humans, we have an uncanny appreciation of music that’s rarely seen in other species. My dogs never hear a jam from 10 years ago and start dancing because they just can’t help it; I do. As it turns out, scientists have already been plunged into the oceans of their own minds and came out with some much better answers than any dull thought I had spawned.
What Music Does to Your Brain
A 2009 study conducted by UC Davis mapped the area of the brain linking music, memory, and emotion. They hooked a group of participants up to the ‘ol fMRI and had them listen to different music. Each person listened through 30 different excerpts of songs randomly picked from the top 100 charts between the years of when they would have been between 8- and 18-years old. After each song, the person would rate how familiar the song was, how enjoyable it was, and whether or not it was associated with a particular past event in their memory. Once done listening, they took a survey on how graphic and rich the memory associated with each song had been.
The results showed the more vivid the memory, the more active the dorsal medial pre-frontal cortex was. Think of this area of the brain as the top, front portion that’s associated with memory and emotion. It’s also where the default mode network resides – the area responsible for evoking experience such as day dreaming or mind wandering.
The researchers created a working model that mapped the varying tones in songs and compared them to the fMRI results. They found that the tones were being processed in the same region the memories were being experienced. The more prominent the tone-tracking was seen in this region, the higher the correlation was with experiencing profound memories. So music isn’t just stimulating our auditory senses, it’s actually kicking brain-wide networks on.
Some Possible Implications
Sometimes a song turns on and hits you when you’re in your car running late to work. Other times you may be hanging out with your friends and find yourself in a car traveling on the roads of neural networks through your conscious instead of the highway you’re on. Does Dancing Queen send you to your better days, when you were young and couldn’t resist moving your body around to its poppy beat? Or will The Wall always make you think of sitting around hysterically laughing with friends after ingesting a bunch of LSD? Whatever wheel you find yourself behind next, enjoy the experience. Explicit memories felt through listening to music are just now being explored beyond the brain physiology.
This research has helped shed light on some of our oldest questions. It also gives us some new methods that can be used to help provide Alzheimer’s or dementia patients with specific forms of music therapy. Because this is one of the last regions of the brain to atrophy, activating it in seniors’ minds can possibly help improve their quality of life longer. By making playlists specifically pinpointed for the person, it may actually help retrieve memories in elderly, or possibly even in people with certain types of autobiographical amnesia.
Wrapping it up
The next time you find yourself listening to your old favorite jam, remember the chill bumps raising up across your skin are forming because your brain is actually stimulating systems inherent with memory, emotion, creativity, and day dreaming. Luckily, being the mental recipient of these processes, you get to reap the rewards and experience emotion every time that guitar solo begins or that bass line drops. So go ahead, bring that air guitar up and let it rip. Go ahead, riff yourself all the way back to your teenage glory. You know, back when music really meant something.