Music often triggers many recollections, from nostalgic bliss to melancholic nightmares. People associate music with events and moments such as national anthems, reunions, weddings, funerals, favourite pastimes, sports games, etc. The collective memories of these musical moments allow people to participate in sing-alongs together and to further build on musical traditions. Neuroscientists have wondered about the region in the brain which connects memories with musical memory. Petr Janata, a professor at the University of California (Davis), used his knowledge in cognitive neuroscience to discover the part of the brain responsible for “mental movie tracking”- the medial pre-frontal cortex, located behind the forehead. Janata wanted to explore the music-memory connection through the medial pre-frontal cortex when he witnessed the brain activation relating to chord and key changes through the fMRI scan. The medial pre-frontal cortex was also activated when people participated in self-reflection and facts relating to autobiography (Hsu, J. 2009. Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain, LiveScience, http://www.livescience.com/5327-music-memory-connection-brain.html).
Janata went on a mission and recruited 11 female and 2 male students from the University of California (Davis) to assist him in his study. All students were between 18-22 years of age. Participants listened to 30 nostalgic music samples from the Top 100 music charts from 15-20 years ago. The students were told to give signals to researchers through the fMRI when a music sample brought about memories of aspects of their lives. The students were self-determining the “integration of sensory information with self-knowledge and the retrieval of autobiographical information; they were not determining the familiarity or unfamiliarity of any of the preselected songs (Janata, P., 2009. The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories, Cerebral Cortex, Advance Access Publication, http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/11/2579.full.pdf+html, Pg. 1). The participants were not allowed to make associations with the music in advance (Janata, 2009). Students also had to complete a survey in which they wrote down their autobiographical connections to each music sample. On average, the students recognized 57% of the sampled songs (17/30), and the more intense emotions were evoked when students listened to musical samples which triggered very strong autobiographical moments. The fMRI detected spikes in the medial pre-frontal cortex when music-memory links were made (Hsu, 2009).
Interestingly, the medial pre-frontal cortex is one of the slowest degenerating parts of the brain, which may explain why many patients with Alzheimer’s can still recall and play music – despite their deteriorating memories in other aspects of life. This finding suggests that the “re-introduction” of music for Alzheimer’s patients can improve the quality of their lives (Hsu, 2009).
Reading both articles made me think about my autobiographical moments with music. I can recall my music associations with past events in my life – riding on the school bus, reading books in the library, graduating from high school, and so on. I am fond of most of my memories with music, as it has enriched my life immensely. Music facilitated my social skills during my secondary school years. I was able to make friends through my association with other “music geeks;” this association made me feel as if I had a place in my high school. As a teacher, I used music to bring poignant issues to students in my community (i.e. coping with changing family dynamics, dealing with peer pressure, etc.) and aided in forming organizations geared to support these students. Although I have many music-autobiographical memories, I realize that I have been taking my memory for granted. These articles make me wonder about further studying on how early musical training may reduce the risk of having Alzheimer’s in later years. Researchers may not know this answer for another 20 years, but the fact that many Alzheimer’s patients can remember songs sung or played decades earlier helps me to remain hopeful of a possible early music training-reduced Alzheimer’s rate connection.
Hsu, J. 2009. Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain, LiveScience, http://www.livescience.co/5327-music-memory-connection-brain.html
Janata, P., 2009. The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories, Cerebral Cortex, Advance Access Publication, http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/11/2579.full.pdf+html