As she sat staring out the window of her room in the senior facility, her body swayed in her wheelchair. She could feel the smile growing across her face. That memory was more than 65 years ago, but in her mind it was vivid and alive. She was reliving it.
Our memories are the threads of the fabric that makes up our life stories. We weave these memories from the past into the present like a well-made tapestry. The threads of that tapestry can include emotions, images, smells, temperature, and physical sensations that are associated with the memory.
While memories can be triggered by sounds, smells, and places, music appears to be one of the strongest triggers to evoke the most vivid memories — particularly when a song hasn’t been heard for a long time.
The Brain and Music
When we hear a song for the first time, our brain processes it through the auditory cortex as we integrate the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Our premotor cortex, the area of the brain that coordinates movement, is activated as we sing along to the song. When we dance to the music, our neurons, or nerve cells, synchronize to the beat through electrical charges. If we are paying close attention to the lyrics, our parietal cortex becomes activated as we shift attention between instrumentation, lyrics, and differing stimuli. When the song triggers personal memories, the prefrontal cortex becomes active. This is the anatomy of music.
Research demonstrates that songs from our past leave the deepest imprint in the brain. Between the ages of 12 and 22 the brain undergoes the most rapid neurological development. This is in part why music we loved during this time gets hard-wired into the brain. The emotional connection to songs is at an all-time high during this hormonally driven period of our lives. These songs and the connected emotions are the most powerful and remain with us through life.
Music Triggers Memories
At the University of Newcastle in Australia, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson studied how music can help patients with brain injuries recover memories. They found that music was more effective at eliciting autobiographical memories than verbal prompts. Their results were published in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation in December 2013.
In a prior study at the University of California, researcher Petr Janata mapped the brain activity of people as they listened to music and discovered the connection between music and memories. Sitting right behind our forehead is an area of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. It is the hub that connects familiar music to emotions and memories.
“What seems to happen,” Janata said, “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.” His research was presented in the journal Cerebral Cortex in February 2009, concluding that music can be a therapeutic tool for those with Alzheimer’s disease as the prefrontal cortex of the brain is one of the last places to atrophy or become damaged. Thus, music can serve as a way to connect and create a better quality of life for those suffering from the disease.
Music and Mood
Music is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to readily change our mood, elicit memories, and influence our behavior. In fact when we hear a song from our past, a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine is released. Dopamine controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and regulates emotional responses. When dopamine is released, we more clearly see rewards and can move into action to achieve them.
While familiar music can stimulate the release of dopamine, if we overplay a particular song, we dilute the power of the neuronal triggers. When songs are played in a random order, our brain cannot anticipate what is coming next and a burst of dopamine is released when an unexpected and familiar song is heard. This is, in part, the explanation for why a song from our past that we have not heard for years can elicit the strongest memory and create an intense feeling. If we continue to listen to the song, the neuronal triggers become weak, and the feeling loses the intensity.
Heart Health and Music
Endothelium is the inner lining of our blood vessels. In vascular diseases the endothelium becomes unbalanced by substances that vasodilate and constrict the vessels. In a study presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in 2013, professor Deljanin llic concluded that the combination of music and physical activity produced impressive benefits on cardiovascular health.
When we listen to music that we love or that evokes positive memories, we produce more nitric oxide, which is important to the health of our blood vessels. Ilic found that listening to joyful music for 30 minutes can improve endothelial function. The combination of physical activity while listening to our favorite songs appears to trigger the release of endorphins in the brain. These feel-good chemicals improve the lining of our blood vessels and contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system.
Music serves as the bridge from our past to our present. The rhythm, the electrical beat, and the lyrics can vividly recreate a memory by activating multiple areas of the brain. We physically and emotionally are moved as music draws our memories to the present. As we approach the holiday season, a time for reflection and family, enjoy your present and new experiences but don’t forget to put on your favorite music, reminisce, and relive all the joyful memories from the past that actively and vividly live in your mind.