Music evokes autobiographical memories, study shows

When we hear Smashmouth’s “All Star,” our minds become flooded with memories from that awkward middle school dance or those Friday nights hanging out with friends.

A particular song can take individuals back to their past almost instantly. But how does our brain form this connection between music and memory?

A UC Davis researcher recently discovered the region that links music, memories and emotions by mapping brain activity.

“Music has beautiful structures to it, so that means we should be able to manipulate those structures and use it to understand how the brain organizes that particular information,” said Petr Janata, an associate professor at the Center for Mind and Brain and the department of psychology.

Janata’s lab conducted the study on 13 UC Davis students in order to understand more about the mechanism of how music serves as a trigger for memory retrieval.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging – or fMRI – was used to record the brain activity of the subjects while they listened to music.

Simultaneously, galvanic skin response, a method to measure electrical resistance in the skin, was used to record emotional arousal, said Burke Rosen, an undergraduate research associate working in Janata’s lab.

Analysis of the fMRI illustrated that a response to both music familiarity and salient memory is found in the medial pre-frontal cortex, located behind the forehead. This is the region that forms connections involving familiar music and memories.

“I’m interested in this region of the brain because it’s one of the parts that seems to atrophy more slowly over the course of Alzheimer’s disease,” Janata said. “My motivation is to find evidence for why people with Alzheimer’s appear to respond positively to music from their past.”

Janata and his team’s long-term goal is to develop music-based therapy for Alzheimer’s patients using their research.

His study on how music can evoke autobiographical memories was published in Cerebral Cortex last February.

“Music can be applied as a tool to understand a number of different processes in the brain,” said Frederick Barrett, a graduate student in the department of psychology. “In our lab, we use music to study music perception, music cognition and memory.”

One of the difficulties in this research is finding music that is meaningful for subjects without necessarily asking them about it, Barrett said. Different songs are meaningful for various study participants.

“We use what we know about music-recommendation databases to select music for research purposes in our lab,” Barrett said.

Recently, Janata has been awarded the esteemed Guggenheim Fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in recognition for his research on music and memory.

SRI RAMESH can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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