Suddenly, I’m back there. I’m sitting on the damp grass, my boots dangling off of the cliff’s edge, watching the sunset paint the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, golden.
I feel the chilly breeze gently blowing the loose hair around my neck. I see the pink clouds collecting above the distant rooftops; the increasingly violet sky melting into night as the sun slips away. “Cadence to Arms” by the bagpiping band Dropkick Murphys blasts as loud as my wimpy iPhone speaker can manage.
I wish the music would flare out in movie theater-grade surround sound, but nestled on this rocky crag, my iPhone has to do –and it did. Now, every time I hear that song, I remember that joie de vivre sunset; the intimacy of that moment as I sat there, just one tiny person in love with the great big world below.
I’m no longer in the United Kingdom, but occasionally “Cadence to Arms” plays when I shuffle my music library. I’ll be getting on the treadmill here in Orange, California, thinking of my Trader Joe’s shopping list when that slow, sweet bagpipe opening oozes from my headphones and I am transported to Scotland, to my semester of traveling Europe, to the excitement and wonder that defined me during those four months, to that version of myself. How does music do that? How does it stop a passing moment and freeze it in our memory forever?
A new study from the University of California, Davis, discusses how this recall works. The study’s author, psychology professor Petr Janata, found that in the medial prefrontal cortex region (the part of the brain directly behind the forehead), “familiar pieces of music (will trigger) a soundtrack for a mental movie” in our heads.
“(Music) calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye,’” Janata said.
Neurologically, our brain has different ways of recalling memory: The first is explicit memory, or the act of consciously trying to remember something, the second is implicit memory, or that spontaneous, reactive form of memory I experience when I hear “Cadence to Arms.”
While explicit memory is crucial, things that affect us from “outside of consciousness” (or implicit memory) can be equally powerful, Robert Snyder, an Art Institute of Chicago composer, told the BBC. This spontaneous recall affects us differently at various points in our lives. During the first two decades of life, memories associated with music will be remembered more strongly than those in later years –a phenomenon called a “reminiscence bump.”
In youth, we tend to experience things for the very first time, and those experiences are new and meaningful, according to the BBC. But later in life, our experiences dull our ability to remember.
Research on the relationship between music and memory is being used today to study diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as depression. In both cases, music can potentially help patients restore memory, or see the past in a new light. Music, Jenkins said, may not cure, but “perhaps it can help heal.”
Maybe when I’m old and gray, I’ll still hear that song and remember that sunset, smiling at the thought of my semester gallivanting across Europe. For now, I’ll gladly take these mini song-induced memory experiences. Spotify is way cheaper than time travel.