“Hang on a second…” We interrupt a conversation because a song we have not heard in YEARS comes on and for at least a few moments, we are admittedly distracted from our current situation while we reconcile the memory this song has generated to myriad factors – where we are now, where we were then, what the song says next, what the song meant then in that context compared to what it means now…Wow. That’s a lot of brain activity happening in response to just a few notes of a melody or a familiar lyric!
Let’s face it, folks. “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” takes on different meanings throughout our lives from infancy through parenthood and even grand (or great-grand) parenthood. It takes a moment to process all of the feelings and recollections that come from hearing it again. That moment is earned. Revel in it. You deserve it. You have invested many moments throughout your life in order to have this one. After all, your brain was made to appreciate sound, rhythm, and poetry presented in melodic voice. In this moment you take for yourself to fully recall and feel the song, your neurotransmitters activate to create an emotional and chemical reaction in you that is undeniable. It is also completely yours.
Music and memory are powerfully tied. Merely reminiscing about songs is somehow insufficient. Hearing the songs makes the impact. Why? Because your brain was made that way. All of your life, the right hemisphere of your brain has been encoding the melodies and lyrics of these songs and registering an emotional response as you’ve attentively listened. Meanwhile, the left hemisphere has encoded the patterns it heard and made some sort of sense of the words to create meaning (whatever that may be to you) so that is was recognizable again. The combination of the two is what creates the individual experience of each song that is meaningful to you when you hear it again. A song does not mean exactly the same thing to me as it does to you because our brains infuse our own personal experiences into that encoding and recall creating something so unique and vivid to each of us.
People, places, and things we haven’t thought of for years are suddenly crystal-clear with full detail in high-definition when we hear certain songs – whether it is the lyrics or the voice or the unique sound of a particular instrument. Music has a way of impacting how we convert vast amounts of information and store memories. Is there a song that always reminds you of a particular time in your life? Your first love? First heartbreak? Senior year of high school? Wedding? Loss? Victory? Is there a song that simply makes you happy for no particular reason? (If your answer is “no,” I highly recommend that you Google, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. It may not be of your generation or genre, but I’ve yet to meet a soul who did not feel a little lighter after hearing that song.)
What we didn’t necessarily know when we were kids was the impact those songs we heard over and over would still have on us as adults or even as senior citizens. As I write this, I am listening to a random playlist with Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” ringing in my ears. It isn’t my favorite song from that time in my life necessarily but oh…my…goodness…the memories it recovers in these few moments! These are memories I’d have had no reason to recover today otherwise. Suddenly, I remember watching Whitney dance and lip-sync in the music video. I was a pre-teen thinking she was THE most beautiful woman with THE most beautiful voice. Lovely, happy memories. It also reminds me that I used to have big hair (absurdly big 80s hair) and wore too much frosted pink lipstick for a young woman my age, but mostly, it brings joy to my heart remembering my best friends from that age. A silly pop song instantly transports me back to an entirely different stage in my life when I had no idea who I would become. The innocence and ignorance of that time is quite precious actually. How could I appreciate all of the growth and maturity I have gained if not for my memories stirred about by this song? And what an experience for that part of my brain that had stored those memories, dormant for so many years, as it was flooded with neural stimulation, recall, associations, imagery, emotion!!
Music, when used in positive and encouraging ways, is an effective tool for recovery from physical and emotional stress. As recovery occurs, new brain cells are formed in the hippocampus, which is largely responsible for learning and memory. This increase in neuron formation is correlated to increased capacity to feel positive emotions when a person is presented the meaningful musical stimulus.
Yes, indeed, music is powerful.
This is why our Life Enrichment teams at RUI communities are making technology, including programmable music players and headphones, available to our residents. We are going to work with residents and families to create playlists of a person’s most memorable and meaningful songs or genre. We are creating media stations in our communities to teach and assist our residents in developing their own personalized playlists that evoke the positive neurotransmitters that will not only stir memory but also will create new emotional connections.
If you do not have an iPod or mp3/mp4 player and headphones/earbuds, GET THEM and reap the benefits! You can go as extravagant or low-cost as you wish and still get the same general effect. Go to a local store or order online. Use your computer to download your favorite songs or artists from iTunes or Amazon (and who knows how many others).
Just do it. Be good to yourself.
As a person with background in both Psychology and Speech-Language Pathology, I lie awake at night thinking of how to help people use their brains to their advantage for communication and memory. I implore you to make this modest investment into your memory, brain health, and emotional well-being. Your brain will feel nourished in a starved area when you hear one of those special songs you have not heard for years. It will be worth every penny.
We’d love to hear from you what song takes you back to a very special memory. Just click on one of the links below to our community Facebook pages and leave a comment.
Let’s go do some good.