Smile Politely

Music and memory

This is your brain on music.

The other day a friend of mine mentioned to me that as she was driving home, a Backstreet Boys song came on the radio, and without even thinking about it, she started singing along and was amazed to find that she still remembered every single lyric. I think this is probably a pretty typical scenario. For me, when I hear certain songs, I am immediately transported back to being fourteen. Some of the memories these songs bring back are incredibly detailed: I have vivid images of sitting in the hot car with the radio on, the smells of the desert, being full of general teenage angst, and coming home from school and immediately turning on TRL (okay, I never said I had good taste in music).

My friend and I are not alone. Music, particularly music popular when you were eight to eighteen years old, can trigger what are known as “autobiographical memories.”  In essence, hearing these songs directly connects to emotions, either positive or negative, that you were experiencing at around that time in your life. Researchers at the University of California, Davis recently found that the medial pre-frontal cortex, is activated when you hear a song from your teenage years. This part of your brain is involved in personality expression and managing impulses and emotions. 

Aha! So the part of your brain that is involved with managing emotion lights up when you hear certain songs. But why, specifically, do songs from your teenage years trigger these strong emotional memories? The brain of a teenager is very different from the brain of an adult, and one of the fastest developing areas of the brain during your teenage years just happens to be that pre-frontal cortex. The teenage brain is developing millions of synapses in the area that is triggered by music, permanently intertwining that music with memories of this period in your life. You probably recall being really, really into a certain band or singer as a teenager, and we are all familiar with, say, the intensity of teenage Beatles or Bieber fans. There is a scientific reason for this and, sad to say, you will never again connect with or love music as deeply as you did as a teenager, when your brain was building itself around these songs.

And now that you are thinking about songs that bring you back, you might find they are stuck in your head. Scientists have discovered that after hearing the beginning of a song triggering a strong memory, if that song is muted, your auditory cortex (the part of your brain associated with hearing) continues on as if the song was playing. The only way your brain satisfies itself is to keep repeating the song. Sorry about that!

Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go fire up my nineties pop station. What music sends you back in time?


Image credit: Credit: Cerebral Cortex/Janata

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