“All it takes is one song to bring back a million memories.” This is a popular quote, and most people would agree. Nostalgia can be a good thing! It has been shown to “counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.” (New York Times Article written by John Tierney: What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows)
Have you ever wondered why or how this occurs?
“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. Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories.” -Petr Janata, Associate Professor of Psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain in California
In other words, when you play familiar music, certain areas of the brain connect to autobiographical memories and feelings. Autobiographical memories are memories that pertain to personal experiences/events or information about yourself (preferences, opinions, moods). Professor Janata did a study in which he had participants put on headphones and listen to excerpts of 30 various songs. The songs were selected at random from “top 100” charts and would have been popular when the subject was between the ages of 8 and 18 years old. While they were listening, the professor mapped their brain activity.
After each excerpt, Janata asked questions such as: Did you recognize the song? Was it pleasing? Did it spark any specific memories? On average, a participant recognized approximately 17 out of 30 songs. Of those 17, about 13 were temperately or strongly related with an autobiographical memory. The result was that songs related to strong sentiments and recollections matched with MRI images that showed greater activity in the upper part of the medial pre-frontal cortex. This is interesting, because this portion of the brain is said to support memory. The study was titled, “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories,” and was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Another study, conducted by Finnish researchers in 2011, revealed that listening to music stimulates wide networks in the brain. They factored in rhythm, tonality, and timbre (sound color). Professor Petri Toiviainen from the University of Jyväskylä states, “Our results show for the first time how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain.” Their study was published in the journal NeuroImage.
Science has proven it more than once. One simple song can take you back in time or just may possibly aid in creating a new, lasting memory. Music creates a lasting impression. “Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” -Stevie Wonder
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