July 24, 2024

The Power of Music to Create Lasting Memories

Music has a unique ability to evoke emotions and, as it turns out, those emotions play a vital role in forming lasting memories. A recent study conducted by psychologists at UCLA has found that fluctuating emotions brought on by music can shape the way we remember experiences, making them more distinct and durable.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, involved manipulating the emotions of volunteers through music while they performed simple tasks on a computer. The researchers discovered that the dynamic nature of the emotions elicited by music helped to create boundaries between different episodes, making it easier for participants to remember what they had seen and when they had seen it. Lead author Mason McClay, a psychology doctoral student at UCLA, believes that these findings hold therapeutic potential for individuals suffering from PTSD and depression.

Our memories are influenced by two processes that work hand in hand over time. The first process integrates memories by compressing and linking them into individualized episodes, while the second process expands and separates each memory as the experience becomes more distant. This constant push and pull between integration and separation is what helps shape distinct memories. This flexibility allows individuals to find meaning and understanding in their experiences and retain important information.

Corresponding author David Clewett, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, compares this process to packing items into boxes for long-term storage. Emotions, in this case, act as effective containers, facilitating organization and making memories more accessible when retrieved.

This phenomenon may also explain why concerts, such as Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, create such vivid and lasting memories. The tour consists of distinct chapters that evoke highly emotional experiences, which can be opened and closed to relive those moments.

For the study, McClay, Clewett, and Matthew Sachs from Columbia University enlisted composers to create music specifically designed to generate different emotions, such as joy, anxiety, sadness, or calmness, at varying intensities. The participants listened to this music while imagining narratives to accompany neutral images displayed on a computer screen. They also used a specialized tool to track their emotions in real time.

After being distracted by a task, the participants were shown pairs of images in random order. They were then asked to determine the sequence of the images and estimate the time interval between them. The results showed that images viewed before and after an emotional change were remembered as occurring farther apart in time compared to images that didn’t involve an emotional shift. Additionally, participants had better memory for the order of items in a stable emotional state compared to those experienced during emotional changes. This suggests that changes in emotion induced by music can influence the formation of new memories.

McClay explains that intense moments of emotional change and suspense, such as the musical phrases in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” can be remembered as lasting longer than less emotive experiences of similar duration. Musicians and composers who weave emotional events together to tell a story may be imprinting rich temporal structures in our memories, giving the illusion of extended time.

The direction of the emotional shift also played a role in memory integration. Memories of sequential items felt closer together in time and were better recalled when the shift in emotion was towards more positive emotions. On the other hand, a shift towards more negative emotions tended to separate and expand the mental distance between memories.

A follow-up survey conducted the next day revealed that participants had better retention of items and moments when their emotions had changed, particularly if they were experiencing intense positive emotions. This suggests that feeling positive and energized can fuse different elements of an experience together in memory.

Sachs highlights the potential of music as an intervention technique, stating that most music-based therapies currently focus on relaxation and enjoyment as a means to reduce negative emotional symptoms. However, this study offers a new approach by suggesting that emotionally dynamic music can directly address memory issues associated with certain disorders.

Clewett believes that these findings could be particularly beneficial for individuals with PTSD. Traumatic memories that are not properly stored can resurface unexpectedly, triggering flashbacks. By using positive emotions, potentially through music, to help individuals with PTSD reframe and reintegrate these memories, negative emotions can be prevented from spilling over into everyday life.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, UCLA, and Columbia University. Though still in its early stages, this research provides valuable insights into the influence of music on memory formation and opens up possibilities for new therapeutic approaches in the future.


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