Associative memories
November 30, 2005 7:45 PM   Subscribe

How is it that a song can trigger memories about a time in your life?

I lived in San Francisco for a four-month period earlier this year and often listened to a particular radio station where they often played a particular song. Recently I was startled after hearing that song to suddenly be bombarded with memories of my time in the city. They were abstract memories, kind of like a flashback - images, sounds, smells, nothing concrete.

I told a friend of mine that lived with me in SF at the time and he reported the same experience - but not when he deliberately listened the song. He only had the 'flashback' effect once when the song came up unexpectedly in his playlist and he was half-listening to it. Further experimentation on my part confirmed that deliberately listening to the song does not induce a flashback.

I'm sure this is something that many people have experienced but does anyone know how this actually works, i.e. what's happening in our heads? Could you deliberately tie your present experiences to a song through repeated listening? And could you deliberately induce a flashback?
posted by PercussivePaul to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANACP (I am not a cognitive psychologist), but I can tell you it's not just music that does this. I once opened some of my old college notes from Math courses, and while looking, could suddenly recall all kinds of abstract memories like you describe -- and concrete ones as well.

If I go back and read my personal journals from long ago time periods, sometimes it's a little disorienting. I often feel more like the person I was then after immersing myself at the time.

My guess is that memory is multiply-associative. It's not like a lookup operation of computer memory, where you've got an address or key that corresponds to a single, atomic piece of information. Rather, your "keys" are ties between any number of experiences, many-to-many associations. That fantastic kiss? You don't just remember the feel of her lips or warmth in your veins, you remember a smell, the music playing on the radio, the way the sunlight fell in the room, the way her eyes looked, the rhytm of your walk as you left, and what you had to do afterward. It's all tied together. Remembering or re-experiencing any of these will often bring back the rest of it.

And music, being processed across more areas of the brain than speech or text alone, probably catches more associations than most keys/triggers.
posted by weston at 8:05 PM on November 30, 2005

For the last twenty years or so, I've tasted feta cheese whenever I hear a particular Talking Heads song. I don't remember which song it is, but I'll sure know when I hear it next.
posted by Etaoin Shrdlu at 8:12 PM on November 30, 2005

Auditory nerves connect into the the temporal lobe which is near the hippocampus (which is responsible for episodic memory) and the amygdala (which handles your emotional memory). I can't find much about auditory memory recall but there's plenty on olfactory recall which often produces very vivid memories. The though is the olfactory nerve is close to the amygdala and can trigger stronger emotional recall. Maybe the same goes on with sound.
posted by sexymofo at 8:37 PM on November 30, 2005

How is it that a song can trigger memories about a time in your life?

I don't even understand why you think this is unusual. Things trigger memories, that's how the brain works…
posted by delmoi at 9:29 PM on November 30, 2005

Response by poster: It's not that I think it's unusual. I'm more curious about the actual mechanism of how it works. Why does one thing trigger a memory but another thing do nothing? Or why does the same thing trigger a memory under one circumstance but not under another?
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:08 PM on November 30, 2005

Best answer: The most straightforward answer, I'm afraid, is: We don't know.

This is what literature calls the objective correlative. Movies use it a lot, except visually -- tie an object to a character, have the character die, have another character look at the object. It's also the basis for the soundtrack cues for individual characters.

The overall process is related to deja vu, and is a serious subject of study because it reveals much about how we construct and access memories.
posted by dhartung at 12:13 AM on December 1, 2005

Music generally DOESN'T trigger memories with me. I suspect this is because I generally don't listen to it on the radio. My dad collected LPs, so I grew up in a house with thousands of records. And for whatever reason, I never "rebelled" and found my own music. I share my dad's tastes.

When I left home, I brought about a thousand cassette tapes with me, and they stayed with me for years until technology moved forwards. Now I have a 60gig ipod completely filled. As I've moved around, my music has always gone with me. And I pretty much play everything all the time.

On the other hand, I DO have these sorts of memories when, say, a TV show that I used to watch comes back on-the-air via reruns (or I see the series on DVD). So my guess is that for these types of associations to occur, you have to hear the music frequently at some point in your life, then STOP hearing it, then hear it again years later. If I hear a piece of music at some location, perhaps my brain initionally says, "Hmmm. Maybe I should like this music to this location." But then I hear the same music at ANOTHER location. And then another. And another. Finally, my brain gives up and just leaves the music a free-floating item.

I seem to relate to music differently that almost everyone I know. I LOVE music. But for me, it's an island unto itself. I've never linked music to people I know, places, fashion trends, politics, etc. I'm totally baffled by the "rock star" phenomenon (i.e. people getting caught up in the sex appeal of some musician), because it has nothing to do with the sound of the music, which is all I care about. My wife once lamented that we don't have "a song." I never listen to music and tell her that it reminds me of her. This is sad but true. Music is, perhaps, the most wonderful thing on Earth. And it makes me feel deeply. But it doesn't make me think of anything else.
posted by grumblebee at 3:39 AM on December 1, 2005

Best answer: If you're interested in this, I would suggest reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It's one of the best novels written, and deals very specifically with the differences between voluntary and involuntary memory. Obviously it Proust's account isn't grounded in cognitive science, but his description of the phenomenology of memory is unequaled.

From another perspective, and quite specifically about music, you might look at The Haunting Melody by Theodore Reik. Reik was a lay psychoanalyst (in fact, the catalyst behind Freud's monograph The Question of Lay Analysis) who was quite close to Freud and whose approach to psychological phenomena is illuminating. Again, although there is no claim to cognitive science in his account, he does a great job of describing the subjective mechanisms of musical memory.
posted by OmieWise at 6:28 AM on December 1, 2005 [2 favorites]

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