We’ve all experienced it. You hear an old song and are instantly reminded of your senior year of high school, a fun vacation, your family, your semester abroad, your best friend, and the list goes on. Or maybe this song reminds you, unfortunately, of an embarrassing moment, the time you had to sleep in an airport, final exams, or that horrible ski race when you had to crawl across the finish line after a leg injury just seconds from the end (yeah, that happened…). Whether the memory is a positive one or not, music can evoke intense, detailed memories of people, places, and events. I also think the majority of us are consciously aware of this phenomenon: During my first experience with rat brain extractions, my friend Katie forced us to turn off the song playing in the background to prevent future images of decapitated rats every time she heard Katy Perry. So I think most of us have experienced this sensation and acknowledge its existence. So why does it happen? In my experience, certain songs bring to mind much stronger memories than the sight of a specific object, the whiff of a certain scent, or the taste of a particular food. What’s so special about music?
As I’m interested in both music and (obviously) neuroscience, I’ve started to read books like Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin, and it’s clear that music’s relationship to the brain is both extraordinary and mysterious (as is the brain itself). Now that I’m reading Connectome, I wonder how music fits in with this idea. Does music effectively take us back in time because it activates more neurons and connections (presumably associated with other memories) than do other stimuli? Taking a step back, do we encode the memory of a song in a more intricate fashion and/or in more brain areas than we encode other memories? Perhaps the complexity of music with its verbal, auditory, and motor aspects allows a broader representation of musical memory throughout the brain. Subsequently, the memory of a song, spread throughout the brain, could have a greater probability of connecting with different types of neurons representing different parts of a particular memory. Hearing the song years later may therefore activate more details of a memory than would a visual stimulus, triggering the ‘musical time machine.’ Of course I’m just speculating. And what about those songs that remind you of traumatic memories? If you read or saw Silver Linings Playbook, you know that, for some people, hearing a certain song can be painful enough to cause actual problems (I know that’s vague, but I won’t spoil the book/movie!). Will our developing knowledge of the connectome be able to help these people with severe, traumatic associations? Will the connectome uncover the mysteries of the musical time machine?