Why Music Triggers a Walk Down Memory Lane

WEDNESDAY Feb. 25, 2009 -- The memories and emotions that people associate with familiar songs can be traced to the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain where the wiring for memories and thoughts about music appears to be linked, a new study says.

The finding, published Feb. 24 in Cerebral Cortex online, might also explain why people with Alzheimer's disease display strong emotional response to songs. This section of the brain is among the last to be affected by the neurological disease.

"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," study author Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, said in a news release issued by the school. "Now we can see the association between those two things -- the music and the memories."

In his study, Janata had 13 university students listen to excepts of popular songs from their childhood while recording their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. After each excerpt, students were quizzed about whether the tune was familiar to them, enjoyable and tied to a specific past event or memory for them. After the brain imaging work, the students took a survey to better detail the memories evoked by the tunes.

The music the students said evoked the strongest memories was also the music that brought about the most emotional responses in them, the study found. And the songs were also the ones that the fMRI scans revealed as causing the most activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The finding could be a jumping off point for developing a musical therapy to help people with Alzheimer's, Janata said.

"Providing patients with MP3 players and customized playlists," he speculated, "could prove to be a quality-of-life improvement strategy that would be both effective and economical."

Posted: February 2009


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