You know those popular
songs that you just can't get out of your head? A new study suggests they have
the power to trigger strong memories, many years later, in people with brain
The small study suggests
that songs instil themselves deeply into the mind and may help reach people who
have trouble remembering the past.
It's not clear whether the
study results will lead to improved treatments for patients with brain damage.
But they do offer new insight into how people process and remember music.
"This is the first
study to show that music can bring to mind personal memories in people with
severe brain injuries in the same way that it does in healthy people,"
said study lead author Amee Baird, a clinical neuropsychologist. "This
means that music may be useful to use as a memory aid for people who have
difficulty remembering personal memories from their past after brain
Baird, who works at Hunter
Brain Injury Service in Newcastle, Australia, said she was inspired to launch
the study by a man who was severely injured in a motorcycle accident and
couldn't remember much of his life. "I was interested to see if music
could help him bring to mind some of his personal memories," she said.
The man became one of the
five patients – four men, one woman – who took part in the study. One of the
others was also injured in a motorcycle accident, and a third was hurt in a
fall. The final two suffered damage from lack of oxygen to the brain due to
cardiac arrest, in one case, and an attempted suicide in the other.
Two of the patients were in
their mid-20s. The others were 34, 42 and 60. All had memory problems.
Baird played number one
songs of the year for 1961 to 2010 as ranked by Billboard magazine in
the United States. The patients were all from Australia, but the Australian pop
charts are similar to those from the United States, she said.
Music a powerful stimulus
For most of the patients,
three of the five, the songs did a better job of prompting memories about their
lives than asking them questions about their pasts, Baird said. They also
remembered events from their lives about as well as similar people who didn't
have brain damage.
"All the patients
enjoyed doing the study. They smiled, sang along and some even danced in their
seats to the songs," she said. "On two occasions, participants became
teary when hearing a song as it brought to mind a 'bittersweet' memory such as
deceased parents. These reactions show that music is a powerful stimulus for
eliciting emotions, both positive and negative, and I believe this is the reason
that it is so efficient at activating memories."
For one 60-year-old man who
was injured in a motorcycle accident, several songs evoked memories of his
marriage of more than 40 years. "Bette Davis Eyes", by Kim Carnes,
reminded him of buying the single for his wife. Meanwhile, Whitney Houston's
"I Will Always Love You" reminded him of "loving my wife over
the years, many happy memories", he told researchers.
Music richly encoded
Petr Janata, a professor of
psychology at the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of California,
Davis, praised the study, saying it's "a really nice advance on what we
know." He was especially intrigued by one of the patients who couldn't
recall his past but could still sing along to some of the songs.
"It suggests that we
encode music more richly," Janata said, "and this affords more
possibilities for other memories to get tied in."
For her part, Baird said
future research should examine how visual images (such as movies and
television), smells and types of touch are tied to memories.
For now, Janata said, it's
clear that music can help people with brain injuries such as stroke. "Any
time that you can engage a brain and keep it active following injury, you are
going to do good things for it. Music appears to be a great way to support that
The study was recently
published online in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.