Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Music and Memory


    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.

Works Cited

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 MemoriesCerebral Cortex, Advance Access Publication, http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/11/2579.full.pdf+html

Monday, November 18, 2013

Music and Dopamine


     Music listening is known to lift peoples’ spirits and transcend all cultures and generations; it is one of the world’s greatest pleasures and mysteries known to humankind. Musicians and scientists alike have shown great interest in the feel-good effects of music, and the 21st century discovery of the music-dopamine link has been instrumental in understanding human behaviour. Dopamine is a neurochemical which is responsible for the increase in emotional arousal in the human brain; it is triggered when we connect actions with rewards such as getting candy for completing chores. Dopamine was previously thought to be related to human activities related to survival like eating, sleeping and reproducing; however, listening to music produces the release of the neurochemical (Moore, K.S., 2011. Your Musical Self - Why music listening makes us feel good: the chemical link between music and emotion, Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-musical-self/201101/why-music-listening-makes-us-feel-good).

     Researchers conducted a music-dopamine study at McGill University, of which 217 participants were initially chosen. 8 participants were in the final selection based on their consistent manner in responses to anticipation and emotional peaks when listening to pleasurable and neutral music for three sessions, regardless of their location. Participants were able to choose their own music. Research was done using both PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans while the 8 participants listened to music throughout the three sessions. The PET and fMRI scans showed the psychophysiological effects of dopamine on the brain and the regions in the brain which are activated when dopamine is released while listening to music respectively. A following questionnaire was completed by the participants stating rating their pleasure level in relationship to the music (Moore, 2011).

     The PET scans measured the autonomic nervous system and hemodynamic activities of dopamine release in relation to peak emotional arousal during music listening (i.e. number and intensity of chills, heart rate, respiration, blood volume, etc.). The fMRI scans measured the psychophysiological effects of the neurochemical in relation to the anticipation of emotional peaks in music, as well as the parts of the striatum which are affected by the release of dopamine. For example, the caudate was found to be more activated when emotional peaks in music are anticipated, while putamen and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) were more greatly affected when music reached its climax. The 8 participants responded to music through a mesolimbic reward system, in which they experienced pleasure at specific points in their music listening (Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A. and Zatorre, R., 2011. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music, Nature Neuroscience, Nature America Inc., Pgs. 1-5, http://www.brainvitge.org/papers/Salimpoor_2011.pdf).

     One possible reason for humans to experience intense pleasure during music listening is that emotions are evoked during the anticipatory and emotional peaks of music (Salimpoor, K., Benovoy, M, Larcher, K., Dagher, A. and Zatorre, R, 2011, Pg. 6). Since each person attaches different emotions to nostalgic moments in their lives, they will behave differently when listening to music. Some people will cry when they are listening to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and other people will smile and “be at peace” when they listen to the same piece. Some people will associate this music with a loved one’s death, and other people will associate it with happier moments in their lives (i.e. giving birth to a child). Music serves a purpose for humans to further understand their feelings and, ultimately, themselves.


     I enjoyed reading both articles, as these findings made me more aware of why people have similar psychophysiological reactions to pre climax and climax points in a song/work while attaching different associations to the same piece. I was intrigued about the pleasure-pain phenomena in relation to reactions of the nervous system. For example, experiencing chills is an interesting psychophysiological reaction which can be perceived as being pleasurable or painful – depending on the circumstances. Chills which are felt as a result of being cold would be considered “painful” by most people, but the same chills experienced in music are pleasurable. Readers can argue that the changes noted in the autonomic nervous and hemodynamic systems were present in the 8 participants because they knew the form of their songs. My recommendation for the researchers is to conduct another music-dopamine study and have preselected music for the new participants to measure dopamine levels in the striatum. I would be interested to see if the participants respond to music through their dopamine levels in a similar manner, and if not, more research would have to done on the music-memory link.

Works Cited

Moore, K.S., 2011. Your Musical Self - Why music listening makes us feel good: the chemical link between music and emotion, Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-musical-self/201101/why-music-listening-makes-us-feel-good

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A. and Zatorre, R., 2011. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to musicNature Neuroscience, Nature America Inc., http://www.brainvitge.org/papers/Salimpoor_2011.pdf,