The playlist of our lives

I was asked a while ago to write a blog relating to music, specifically why we are able to remember the playlist to our teen years better than most other playlists from other areas of our lives. I can’t quite do that, as there’s nothing special about teen years – what is special about that time is the level of emotionality we experience, and it’s this emotional element that is the trigger for intense memories.

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Being a teenager is an emotional experience – there are surges of hormones, you’re trying to work out who you are, where you fit, and what you want in life. It’s an intense experience that we all go through. But it’s the intensity of the emotion which is the trigger for stronger memories in relation to music, not the period in life per se. The only thing special about this period of life is the frequency with which we listen to music – for most people it’s the most they will ever listen to music in such a concentrated format. I’m excluding you musicians from this, we just carry on listening to that volume of music – for some this is as essential as oxygen.

Music is an essential element throughout life for most of us. There are few amusical (those who can’t, and don’t want to, connect with the musical world) people around, which sounds so strange to us music lovers, but is a valid and real state.

Music has evolved as part of us as much as opposable thumbs have, even speech is related to musical intonation and rhythm. Darwin proposed that music and language evolved in parallel with each other, and that there was an intermediary stage in the evolution of language, one which more closely resembled music than language, but was distinct from both [Masataka 2009], a pre-linguistic system he called prosodic protolanguage. Music is a form of communication, and it makes sense that this is witnessed at a neurological level as well.

Most of us listen to music for specific purposes to – it might be to calm us down, release tension, relive a memory, or enhance an emotion we’re feeling. We use music to help us regulate our emotions [Swaminathan & Schellenberg, 2015].

We also feel the need to communicate and share our musical loves or interests with those we care about. My generation made mix tapes when we were kids (cassettes for those of you who are too young to know what a tape is!), we moved on to CDs (compact discs) when they were available for mass use in the 90’s. We’d collect a selection of music that we wanted another person to have, which hopefully expressed how we were feeling about them – so yes, it was a thing that you did for your boyfriend/girlfriend.

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Kids today create playlists, easily accessible and constantly updatable. I’m sorry kids, this is just not the same. Playlists are so intangible, and so transient. Mix tapes are tangible and constant, you have to literally throw them out if you don’t want them, not hit delete. It just feels like they meant more, that they were more significant. Maybe I’m just getting old…

I still have most of the mix tapes that were made for me, they’re all special and listening to them instantly brings back all the emotions and memories associated with those people, good and bad.

Emotions are a funny thing, we’d like to control them more, but they always seem to get the better of us; unless you’re one of these people who can control their emotions – I have no idea what that’s like, mine always seem to make my decisions for me. Emotions are a big factor in our decisions and how we process events. Emotions make us focus on specific elements of events, focusing our attentional resources in locations which may or may not be the same as others witnessing events. Emotions are individual and our experience of them is very different, which means our interpretation of events can often be similarly different to others.

Think back to the times in your life which are the most intense emotionally, can you bring any music to mind? If you like your music then you probably find this a very easy task. The reverse always works as well, there are songs which can take us right back to a point in time in our lives – whether we’d like to revisit that memory or not. There is one song, ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams which I can’t listen to now, it takes me back the memory of a friend’s wake. It’s a beautiful song, but a very painful memory, so I turn over to a different radio station. 

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So how can music do this? How can it help us regulate our emotions and create strong memories?

Music is can trigger something called ‘emotional arousal’, or an increase in emotional response. This means there are physiological effects to listening to music which triggers emotions, it’s as though our limbic system houses an ‘instinctive communication’ system, one that enables us to connect and communicate with others in our species without the need for words. The limbic system is part of what is termed the ‘old brain’, it’s the bit of the brain which all creatures with a brain have (it’s the lumpy bit at the top of the spinal cord and right in the middle of your brain).

When we listen to music our heart rate increases, our respiration rate changes, and we have increased electrodermal activity (EDA) [Swaminathan & Schellenberg, 2015]. This last one is skin conductance, or electrical activity in the skin, and is the same mechanism that leads to vasodilation in the face – blushing. This just means your sympathetic nervous system is activated in relation to emotional arousal – i.e. that music is triggering emotional reactions. These are just the physiological changes we’re aware of.

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There are also a multitude of changes in our brain when we listen to music that triggers emotional reactions. There is increased activity in our limbic system, specifically the amygdala, hippocampus and the hypothalamus. The first two are the most important ones for this blog.

The amygdala is known as the ‘fear hub’, and is activated strongly in highly charged situations where a fight or flight response is needed. The amygdala has many layers, and it’s the top layer which responds to music, in particular happy music. This top layer of the amygdala connects to something called the nucleus accumbens which is also involved in addiction (so yes, it is possible to be addicted to music). The nucleus accumbens is an area driven by something called dopamine, also known as the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter. Our brains love dopamine, it’s almost literally like a burst of happy for us. Generally you find that people will do anything that increases levels of dopamine in the brain: sex, chocolate and music all do it, so the phrase “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is incredibly apt at a neurological level [Lieff, 2014]

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Secondly the hippocampus is involved with memory, specifically episodic and autobiographical memories. These are both as they sound, episodic memories are episodes or events, and autobiographical memories are memories specific to ourselves and our lives. There are lots of types of memory, and interestingly music skill is a different type of memory – procedural, which is stored elsewhere in the brain. Researchers describe hippocampal activity as conscious recollection and reckon that familiarity is stored elsewhere, in the medial temporal cortex. For those of you with some neuroanatomy knowledge, you’ll spot that the temporal cortex is the location where we process auditory information. Familiarity is located near the primary auditory cortex. For all the complexity of the brain, I’ve yet to encounter any connections or specialisation of area that’s not entirely logical.

All these areas of the brain work together to process what we hear, and what we hear essentially gets a memory boost when emotion is involved. Which is why you can remember emotional events – you literally have stronger memories which are more resistant to decay and are less likely to disappear.

So, the areas in the brain which are activated when we listen to music are involved with processing emotion and memory.  Music is also great for stress release – it can lower arousal levels, specifically it can reduce the level of cortisol in our system, which is associated with an increased stress reaction. So when we listen to music it calms us down.

What happens when we’re calm? We focus more, and this in itself is good for memory formation – because the way to remember something is to focus on it. More focus = stronger memory.

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So even though our teenage years are all very melodramatic, the emotional intensity of these years provides a bridge to stronger memory formation, and the introduction of music into this equation amplifies and focuses the response we have to music and events. It’s quite a cocktail.

Any event in your life that triggers really strong emotions is liable to be firmly imprinted in your memories: the musical elements can trigger the memory or the memory can bring to mind the musical elements. It’s all linked in your amygdala, hippocampus and medial temporal cortex.

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So, there you go, one explanation for why you remember so much of the music from teenage years – it’s not just teenage years, it’s emotionally intense periods in your life. So it’s worth making sure you listen to good music really – I hope the playlist to your life has some good tracks!



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