If you’re of a certain age and immediately envision Robert Redford, you’ve just experienced a MEAM. Your wedding first dance song, a song from senior year or your mother’s favorite hymn can all take you to a place and time in your past.
Music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) happen “spontaneously, triggered by a perceptual cue or current thought,” according to Lola Cuddy, director of the Music Cognition Laboratory at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Research has found that music has a separate and distinct place in our brains. When memory has been impaired by disease or injury, music knowledge is often still accessible. The music region of the brain shows the least atrophy in brain scans of dementia subjects. Researchers are looking at music as a way of communicating with advanced dementia patients.
This sparing of musical memory is seen in dementia. I remember a mostly unresponsive woman in a memory care unit who came to life when we started singing Christmas carols. She not only knew all of the words, she had a unique “tra la la” addition to the end of each phrase.
This is illustrated perfectly in the documentary Alive Inside by Dan Cohen, director of Music & Memory. Cohen brought iPods to nursing home residents and personalized their music. The results of that program led to the documentary and nonprofit organization supplying personalized music to nursing home residents.
A fascinating case study testing the musical memory of a professional cellist who suffered memory loss from encephalitis was published in 2012. Although he had no memory of his childhood or family and friends and did not know well-known children’s songs, he could still recognize famous classical music, read music and play the cello.
Brain imaging shows that we react differently to songs we really like. (Click to see the MRI images.) When we like a song, the brain regions for self-referential thought and memory encoding are engaged. But when we love a song, no memory coding is necessary.
There are people whose brains do not respond to music. People with musical anhedonia do not experience pleasure from music, demonstrated by reduced activity in specific brain areas. In experiments, these people do respond to gambling winnings though. The research is being used to understand drug addiction and the brain.
Personalized music therapy used in stroke recovery showed “fine-grained neuroanatomical changes in the brain” in a 2014 study. Music therapy is being used in palliative care, depression, and gait physical therapy for Parkinson’s. As a Girl Scout leader, I remember creating a list of songs to distract the girls as part of an event emergency preparedness plan. If music is that powerful for people in these conditions, perhaps you can use it purposefully to improve your life.
What you need to do now
Make a playlist of music that resonates
Curate the list by emotion.
When you hear a song that evokes a good memory, make a note to add it to your playlist.
Find songs that make you feel powerful, excited, reflective and relaxed.
Create playlists for different moods and activity levels
Music can help with mood and motivation.
If you develop dementia or suffer a brain injury, this will be vital information.
Make the playlist accessible to your family/friends
You are the only one who knows which songs trigger which memories. Keep your playlist with your advanced health care directive.