Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?
We all know the power of an old song to trigger vivid memories that seem to transport us back in time and space. What songs bring back emotional memories from your past? The songs we love become woven into a neural tapestry entwined with the people, seasons, and locations throughout our lifespan. What is the neuroscience behind the ability of music to evoke such strong memories of the people and places from our past?
Has a song on the car stereo, or in a store, recently caught you off guard and brought back a tidal wave of memories? Why do autobiographical memories linked to music remain so rich and textured? Interestingly, it appears that if you haven’t heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke stronger specific memories of a time and place from your past. The memories linked to overplayed songs can become diluted because the neural network is constantly being updated.
The Neuroscience of Vivid Musical Memories
A series of recent studies have found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.
In the first study of its kind, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson, from University of Newcastle in Australia, used popular music to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories. Their pioneering research was published on December 10, 2013 in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.
Although their study only involved a small number of participants, it is the first to examine ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ (MEAMs) in patients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs), rather than those who are healthy or suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
In their study, Baird and Samson played snippets from “Billboard Hot 100” number-one songs in a random order to people with ABI. The songs—taken from the whole of the patient’s lifespan from age five—were also played to control subjects with no brain injury. All participants were asked to record how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories the song evoked.
Interestingly, the highest number of MEAMs in the whole group was recorded by one of the ABI patients. In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period, and were typically positive. Songs that evoked a memory were noted as being more familiar and more well liked than songs that did not trigger a MEAM. This is common sense.
Two previous studies identified the broad range of neural networks that are engaged when we listen to music. A 2009 study from the University of California, Davis mapped the brain while people listened to music and found specific brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions are activated by familiar music. The UC Davis study titled, “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories,” was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
The discovery may help to explain why music can elicit strong responses from people with Alzheimer’s disease, said the study’s author, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain. The hub that music activated is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region—right behind the forehead—and one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer’s disease.
"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. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye," Janata said. "Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories."