Title: Music, Memories, and the Brain
Speaker: Dr. Peter Janata
Host of podcast: Steve Mencher
Series: Music and the Brain
Interview Date: April 29, 2009
Dr. Peter Janata is an associate professor from the University of California, and member of the Center for Mind and Brain. In the interview, hosted by Steve Mencher, Dr.Janata shares some of his research on the creation of autobiographical memories in the brain through music as well as the connection between music and spirituality in the brain. Interestingly enough, the two studies display similar results.
When we hear a particular song on the radio that we have not heard for a long time, we are instantly reminded of a different time and place in our lives. Dr.Janata calls this experience, “music evoked autobiographical memory.”
The research study looks at how memory is structured and organized in our brains, as well as the experiential state we are in when we hear a particular piece of music. The actual process involves individuals presented with both familiar and unfamiliar songs, followed by a questionnaire. Responses to questions such as, “How much of the music triggered your memory?” or “How did you enjoy the music?” then helps Dr.Janata gather and analyze the data to see what brain regions are responding. His study also allows for a more in depth look into the brain structures by following the tonal structure of music (major/minor keys) and examining its impact on memory.
Dr.Janata also discusses his more recent research on how music and spirituality connect in the brain. An individual’s experience of singing in church with others, for example, triggers certain parts of the brain to recognize and relate these experiences for memory and emotion. Interestingly, according to Dr. Janata, the patterns that exist in the brain in music evoked spiritual experiences and music evoked autobiographical memories, are quite similar. He also brings to our attention the idea that there are two different brain networks involved in the process. In particular, he mentions the medial prefrontal areas in the brain which plays a significant role in the connection between our musical experiences and our memory. As we “watch the brain listen” (Mencher, 2009), we begin to see all the "web associations" (Janata, 2009) that begin to develop in the brain.
From a musical perspective, I appreciate knowing and learning more about how our musical experiences affect our memory and brain activity. I think back to my experiences in South Africa where I had the opportunity to be immersed in the culture and music (at school, during funerals and weddings, at home, or out in the community). The power of those experiences was so strong that hearing all those songs again, would just bring me right back to that place and time. The music evoked autobiographical memory in which Dr.Janata speaks of, rings so true.
From a pedagogical perspective, I think about the importance of providing meaningful, authentic contexts for the learners. Because once an experience becomes meaningful, it is more likely to be remembered. I am also thinking about the kind of brain activity that is happening when music is used as a tool to help learn languages (e.g., using music to teach French language concepts). If there are such strong associations with music and memory, music evoked experiences, then as music educators, it would be worthwhile to see the in-depth pedagogical and educational implications of having such experiences.
Finally, from a health/medical perspective, I am intrigued to find out more about the effect and implications that music has in alzheimer patients, their memory, and what other brain activity happens in the process (e.g., what is really happening in the medial prefrontal areas of the brain).
hink back to my visit with my uncle who has alzheimer's. His two daughters were with me at the time. The fact that he was unable to recognize his own daughters was disheartening to see, but their efforts to help him remember things of the past (e.g., playing music from his childhood) was really nice to see. Moments later, you can hear him singing hymns from his past. Just as Dr. Janata describes the autobiographical memory,
it really did seem as though my uncle was brought to a different time and place in his life.