Friday, October 19, 2012

Music and memories: key-value pairs?

Marshall Square Mall - Syracuse, NY

It has always made me wonder how a certain piece of music triggers a set of memories. A quick Google search reveals that there is scientific basis for this - a study published by LiveScience in 2009 shows that this is so. (There are probably other pieces of research on this as well.) In this study, they perform a survey with test subjects and scanned their brains for activity while playing some music which was popular when the subjects were 8-18 years old. They say that this scan showed spikes of mental activity when a song triggered some vivid memories. The article also identifies the part of the brain that is responsible for this - the medial prefrontal cortex which is just behind the forehead.

Obviously not all music has this effect. Interestingly, the memories that come flooding back are not the people/places/activities of the first time that I listened to it, but the first time I connected with it. (I don't know if this is the same for everybody.) In other words, I would have heard that song before, perhaps on the radio or television, but would not have made this connection. Or perhaps I would have felt that it is a nice song, and forgotten about it. But there is that one unique point in time where I would have connected with it that keeps coming back, the time, place, what I was doing then, etc. And it is not always the expected connections - such as a girlfriend, or a party, etc. It could also be something really...blah.

For instance, I remember the first time I made a connection with Dido's “Here with me” when I had just picked my uncle up from the railway station in Bangalore; when I got back home, I'd seen its music video on television. I also remember that I'd played a game of chess with my computer immediately after. I'll list a few more in the table below.

So here's the hypothesis - Listening to a good song while thinking about something creates a key-value pair that can never ever be modified.

(A key-value pair is a data structure, which is effectively a tuple. So it will have the format of <name, value>.)

Table: Some of my musical key-value pairs
SongArtist(s)LocationSeason/Time of DayBlah Activity
Here with meDidoBangalore2000 Monsoon morning, ~8amPicked uncle up from railway station, came home and played chess with the computer
IrisGoo Goo Dolls/Ronan KeatingSolihull2006 Fall night, ~11:30pmLying on the bed, looking out the window. (Playing that night on the radio was Ronan Keating's version)
Urzu urzu durkutShreya GhoshalBangalore2006 Spring morning, ~7amGot on office bus, starting work in a new project/different location
Fix YouColdplaySyracuse2008 Winter evening, ~4:30pmKilling a couple of hours while waiting to go downtown
Ondra rendaBombay JayashreeChennai2004 Summer Sunday afternoon, ~3pmLazing indoors as it was too hot outside
Mar JawanShruti Pathak, Salim MerchantEn route from Toronto to Montreal2010 Winter afternoon, light snowDriving on Highway 401 E

Why this much (unnecessary) detail in the table? Exactly! I'm surprised at the kind of detail each song reminds me of, although nothing really extraordinary was necessarily happening at the time.

It was just another night when I was lying down on my bed. And what's the big deal about picking my uncle up from the railway station? Or lazing indoors? Also, all these songs I had listened to before and remember thinking that they were good songs, but why do I not remember the first time I heard them? And why did I make a connection at these “blah” times? As I said, these were not the first time I heard these songs, and definitely not the last time either. These are some of my favourite songs and are usually part of most of my playlists.

There are many more examples, of course. These are all just ordinary moments. I'm not even getting into the personal stuff where connections with certain music is expected because that moment was special.

Looking at the above examples, I cannot find any similarities between why these songs connected when they did. The only correlation I can think of is that all these times I was thinking about something, can't quite remember what for each instance, but my mind was drifting with thoughts. My conclusion from this one case study, i.e. me, (albeit not a very scientific conclusion) is that good music combined with exercise for your mind perhaps has this effect of reminding you of the scene at the time you connected!

In other words, you can hear it again and make all the connections you want again, but the one that keeps flooding back is the first time you make the connection, i.e. the initial key-value pair. So, the above table is now read-only, edits are not allowed! If you disagree, let me know. I'd be interested to hear other views on this. Please also point me to other articles on this subject in case you know of any.

In the study mentioned at the beginning of this post, the researchers also mention that even patients suffering from memory loss are also able to recollect musical connections, with the reasoning that the prefrontal cortex one of the last few regions of the brain to waste away.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good song creates a motion picture - and since, this is a set of many pictures, it is perhaps worth much more. But if it's a bad song, it triggers nothing. So my ordering with respect to its worth in words is: Bad song < Any picture < Good song (with a made connection)

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