Melody And Memory: Can Music Therapy Help You Tap Into Long Lost Memories?

As We Age, It Can Be Increasingly Difficult To Retain Some Of Our Most Cherished Memories. But Can Music Therapy Help Us Keep In Touch With Our Pasts?

Our memories are the foundations of who we are. But as we get older, retaining and recollecting our favorite moments can be challenging. For people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other memory loss conditions, losing access to treasured memories can be frustrating and disheartening. It can also be frustrating and disheartening for their families, friends, or other caretakers.

However, there are still ways that people experiencing memory loss can tap into their pasts. Even after many years, music therapy can help individuals uncover lost or forgotten memories. 

brain scan images
We all know that music can trigger our memories — but how does music impact us on a neurological level? 

Music, Memories, and the Mind

Have you ever heard a song from your childhood and were instantly transported back in time? Maybe you’ve listened to music and were suddenly reminded of the last time you heard a specific song. 

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to know that music and memories are intimately linked. 

Although we are aware that certain music is associated with different moments from our lives, this connection goes beyond abstract observation. According to Petr Janata, an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, the region of our brain where memories are supported and retrieved is also the hub that links familiar music, memories, and emotion.

This hub is located right behind the forehead, in the medial prefrontal cortex region. Notably, this is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Janata’s Research

Throughout his career, Janata has documented the ways that music can serve as a trigger for retrieving memories. In order to learn more about the mechanisms of memory and music in the brain, Janata recruited 13 UC Davis students for one of his studies. 

First, Janata had his subjects listen to excerpts of 30 different songs through headphones and recorded their brain activity using fMRI technology. Primarily, Janata wanted to see if the participating students would associate the music with memories from their past. Because of this, he selected songs from “top 100” charts from years when the students were between the ages of 8-18 years old. 

After playing each excerpt, Janata had the participants respond to questions about the music. Janata’s questions ranged from whether the music was familiar or not, to assessments about how enjoyable the music was. Additionally, Janata asked the students if they associated any of the songs with a particular episode, incident, or memory. 

Based on his surveys, Janata found that the songs that were linked to the strongest memories were also the ones that produced the most vivid, emotional responses. 

Through his findings, Janata confirmed his hypothesis. Based on the fMRI images and the self-reported reactions, Janata found a correlation between the degree of salience of memories and the amount of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. 

a record player spinning a vinyl record
By conducting research, scientists are able to identify the exact ways that music can uncover a person’s lost memories.

Reschke-Hernández’s Research: Music Therapy and Memory

Music therapists are no strangers to the fact that music can evoke and influence emotions. Alaine Reschke-Hernández, a music therapist from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, knows that the strategic use of music can improve well-being, particularly for older people

In an effort to see the benefits of music therapy on memory, Reschke-Hernández teamed up with neuroscientists to see if channeling music-associated memories would positively impact the emotions of individuals with dementia.

For her research, Reschke-Hernández asked participants to choose songs that evoked either sadness or happiness. The participants — ranging from 19 healthy older adults to 20 individuals with Alzheimer’s disease — listened to self-selected music. After listening, the participants rated how they felt when listening and reported if they remembered listening to the music in the past. 

In both the healthy adults and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, reports showed that positive and negative emotions lingered for up to 20 minutes — regardless of if the participants remembered listening to the music or not. 

Based on these findings, it can be suggested that a person’s emotional response to a piece of music may not depend on associated memory recall. According to Reschke-Hernández, this is good news for people with dementia. 

“If we can help [people with dementia] have a lasting emotional response, or better emotional regulation using music, well, that’s fantastic,” Reschke-Hernández said.

Still, this research helps scientists better understand memory loss in individuals with dementia. Through the study of music-linked memories, researchers can learn more about the brain regions involved in recognizing music and the ways that these brain regions remain relatively untouched by Alzheimer’s disease. By identifying these connections, scientists have discovered that music might be able to boost autobiographical memories in Alzheimer’s patients. 

a pair of headphones plugged into a phone
As a result of these musical studies, doctors and caregivers are learning how to better care for their patients.

The Implications of Reschke-Hernández’s Study

The findings from Reschke-Hernández’s research have positive implications for individuals who are experiencing memory loss, especially in the form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

In addition to relieving stress, decreasing agitation, and reducing anxiety and depression in Alzheimer’s patients, scientists now know that music therapy can allow individuals with Alzheimer’s to tap into positive memories and emotions that are linked with these memories. 

With this knowledge, caregivers and medical professionals can provide their patients with music and customized playlists that will increase memory exploration. Even if music does not allow patients to remember everything from their pasts, music therapy can still increase the quality of life of individuals experiencing any form of memory loss. 

a wooden box filled with old photographs
When music therapy is implemented into the lives of those who experience memory loss, the past doesn’t have to stay forgotten. 

For emotional and practical reasons, our memories are an essential part of our lives. As we get older and face the possibility of experiencing disease-induced memory loss, it can be frightening to think about losing our favorite memories. 

Although certain forms of memory loss cannot always be avoided, music therapy can be an effective way for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease to access long lost memories. By studying the ways that music and memories are connected, researchers continue to learn more about the functioning of the brain and the ways that memory loss patients can find relief. 

Annabeth Collis
Annabeth Collis is a writer from Buffalo, NY.
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