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October 16, 2013 at 1:03 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

The Sound & The Memory

By Breana Ostrander More Blogs by This Author

Have you ever been listening to a song, and you're brought back to a very specific moment or a very specific place in your life? It's like, all of a sudden, the world smells and feels the same way it did when you listened to that song previously, no matter how many years have passed since?

I had a Michael Jackson song set as my alarm clock a long time ago, all the way back when I had a Blackberry and it was (kind of) still socially acceptable. I was thinking about it a couple of months ago, remembering that I grew to have a love/hate relationship with the song, but completely incapable of recalling what song it was. I searched online and asked my friends overly vague questions like, “What is that one Michael Jackson song that goes like...” and started humming the song, but to no avail. It was a couple of months later that it randomly played on the radio, and I became engulfed in memories, completely caught off guard. 

The ringtone turned out to be “P.Y.T.” by Michael Jackson. Now, every time I hear the yell, “I want to love you!” I jerk around in my chair like I've been electrocuted. I visibly cringe at the note Jackson hits in the first, “I want”. It's almost painful. More so, after the initial cringe, I'm pulled back to St. Patrick's Day more than a year ago, suddenly sitting in the attic room of the boy I liked. While twisting back and forth in his desk chair, I listened to a Michael Jackson playlist he'd pulled up when I claimed I didn't really like MJ, and watched this boy try to teach me how to moon walk. I'm wearing orange shorts with a green shirt, and his black hair is slightly messy in a way that I never quite got over. I'm slightly sleepy from the nap I just woke up from and laughing in the early spring air that rushes in from the window.


It's surprising how vivid that memory is, considering it's pulled from a song that I never even listened to all the way through before choosing it as an alarm. Why is that now, almost two years later, I can be pulled back into nostalgia so quickly?

According to Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist, I can blame the medial pre-frontal cortex. This spot is responsible for music processing, as well as self reflection and autobiographical memories. The pre-frontal cortex is also one of the last to atrophy in Alzheimer's patients, which is possibly why they can perk up when they hear music, or why they can sometimes play a song they learned many years ago. This kind of memory is called episodic and is a type of long-term memory.

The pre-frontal cortex isn't the only part of the brain at fault though. There's also the amygdala, housing emotions such as nostalgia, and the hippocampus, handling all of the long-term memories. So when you hear a song from long ago and are suddenly bombarded with the feeling that you've been transported to another time and place, its because all the right parts of your brain have been stimulated, activating memories that would have otherwise remained silent.

Music jars people into reminiscing all the time. The New York Times posted

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