The Musical Time Machine

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?

9 thoughts on “The Musical Time Machine

  1. I definitely agree with this experience and have had it happen to me numerous times. But one thing I cannot agree is music being a stronger trigger than other senses. I think that it actually depends on the person and what that person is more interested in and has a larger knowledge on. Like you said, you are interested in music and so you probably have more neural connections when it has got to do with music and hence it plays a bigger trigger. For me, I am very interested in smell and smell always intrigues me and so when I wear a certain perfume during a significant memory, I sometimes have to stop ever wearing it, if its a bad memory to stop myself from thinking about it.

    Having said that, I would also like to point out that there is a possibility that music would be more of a bigger trigger than other senses because there are words that are frequently involved and with words, we make a bigger understanding and thus a bigger association.


  2. I really like the idea of music serving as a strong trigger because it is broadly represented in memory. I know I sometimes use tunes to help me memorize, for example, brain regions. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that I start thinking of the ventral anterior nucleus of the thalamus when I listen to “Trouble” by Taylor Swift.


  3. My only reply to Czarina’s comment is : “Nerd” 🙂
    Why do you think music is so much more evocative than visual stimulation? What about stuff like musical hallucinations? I’ve heard of people who have gone deaf yet the auditory part of their brain generates spontaneous activity that is manifested in the form of musical hallucinations.


  4. Musicophilia (Oliver Sacks) actually has a section on musical hallucinations! That book is mostly about rarities pertaining to music and the brain rather than a discussion of a ‘typical’ brain (although I won’t dare define the ‘typical brain’).

    When I referred to music as being more evocative than visual stimuli (at least in my experience), I meant this specifically in terms of the ability of everyday visual stimuli (seeing a picture, for example) to induce associated, detailed memories (rather than rare occurrences like hallucinations, which are a whole different topic). And I think, as I was saying in this post about the complexity of music, music may be special because it also involves so many other systems (visual, if you’re reading music; verbal/language, if you’re singing; movement, if you’re dancing; etc. etc.) that makes it unique.

    and Czarina–you should sing us your anatomy version of “Trouble” next class. 🙂


  5. I think this phenomenon is really interesting and it has happened to me a lot! I like the idea that music’s complexity allows for a broader representation of musical memory throughout the brain. Music includes auditory and verbal components and triggers a motor response. It would be really cool to study how the tune, words, and any dance moves the music may produce all work together to evoke strong memories.

    I also think that the interactions between music, emotion, and memory in the brain are really interesting. A song being a trigger for some behavior, like in Silver Linings Playbook, shows how powerful music is. I wonder how the relationship between music, emotion, and memory may be used in therapy in the future?


  6. This is super interesting. As Seung talks about in the Codebreaking chapter, work has been done examining sequential action potentials (sounds like a cell assembly to me!) while a canary sings its song. Perhaps this is the same when we listen to music- maybe the same synaptic chain fires when we sing a song and when we listen to it ( a little bit like mirror neurons but for sounds instead of movements). Building off this idea, perhaps when the song plays (and the synaptic chain fires), synapses can be created to the synaptic chain, like branches, adding on a memory. Could a synaptic chain lead to a memory driven cell assembly?


  7. I agree with Jumana that I am very interested in this phenomenon as it pertains to smells. I want to learn more about this. Everyone always says that “scent is the strongest sense tied to memory”, personally I’d have to agree. However it sound like some people might say that music is more tied to memory for them so I wonder how this varies person to person. Is it similar to the “visual vs. verbal learner” difference?


  8. I agree with Czarina. The increased number of domains (verbal, melodic, motor) is a great explanation for why music is such a powerful trigger. I also wonder if it’s possible that, because our generation has so much musical technology than any previous generation, we’re more susceptible to such triggers since music plays almost everywhere we go. Music has become a LOT more portable in the last twenty years. Remember walkmen?


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