Music: a trigger for past memories

21 October 2009

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Have you ever had the feeling of deja vu when you walk into your local café and they’re playing a song you haven’t heard since you were thirteen? You hear that song, and suddenly stop dead, forgetting your latte order and freezing in time.

It happens unexpectedly, and nobody knows what their trigger will be.  Mine was Jeff Buckley’s Lover, You Should Have Come Over, but yours could be anything from Pixies to Spice Girls to Lauryn Hill.

I’m sure everyone has experienced it; overcome with a sort of sensory overload that far transcends typical notions of nostalgia.

I’m not just saying the music evokes a certain time or place, but rather stops your body and shuttles your head right back there, and for a brief second, you relive time in the ultimate form of deja vu.

Back when I was in school, I was so certain this discovery would revolutionise the field of psychology that I went as far as swearing my friends to secrecy whenever we discussed it.  After all, memory is one the most powerful aspects of the human brain, and with my soon-to-be-patented Total Music Recall (TMR) theory, society would be able to deconstruct many mental illnesses simply by using an adapted form of regression therapy.

Naturally, I was piggybacking off a number of concepts professionals had been using for years, like echoic memory (auditory version of sensory memory) and emotional memory (consciously available, but elicits a powerful, unconscious physiological reaction). TMR could be seen as a marriage of these principles, whereby audio triggered off strong unconscious reactions, like what we feel when we hear that particular song after a long break.

People tend to use sensory association with a variety of different mediums, whereby one stimulus feeds off another. For instance, the smell of a certain aftershave could evoke an ex-boyfriend, the sound of traffic – bustling Manhattan and the taste of home-cooked chicken – a late grandmother. However, association usually refers to brief items that last for a few seconds and are stored primarily in short-term memory. Hearing a chorus, melody or guitar solo that has lain dormant in one’s subconscious for sometimes ten years (and having such strong association that the original experience is almost palatable) is something entirely different.

TMR in practise is so bizarre that for a moment you think you’ve died and been reincarnated in exactly the same spot.

I heard the Jeff Buckley ballad as I lay in a wooden bunk in Chiang Mai, Thailand, some six years after it was first relevant. I was backpacking in a foreign land, and as the lyric “Maybe I’m just too young/To keep good love from going wrong” emerged from the humidity, I felt myself thrown back to early adolescence, in my ancient car outside my first true love’s house, kissing wildly as the windows fogged up and Jeff sent out his ill-received warning from the stereo.

In that rickety tomb of a bed on the other side of the ocean, my other senses soon leapt into the fray. I smelled her still wet hair (she’d just come out of the shower), could feel her skinny arms around my skinnier shoulders and could see the gradual brightness and dimming of headlights as other cars drove obliviously by our amorous automobile. iPods should really come with a warning for their shuffle mechanism. This is the kind of mind-trick I would have liked some preparation for.

Marketing firms and advertisers have already embraced the TMR idea on a fleetingly superficial level; remaking pop hits with their own slogans (I’m Lovin’ It) and using contemporary dance music to mentally equate a great night out with something lame, like telecommunications.

But as yet, nobody has truly tapped into the full potential that can be realised in matching individuals to important moments of their lives via sound. It doesn’t have to be love-oriented; Third Eye Blind’s Semi Charmed Kind Of Life transports me to a lazy afternoon at my childhood beach house with a British babysitter called Louise who made us mix tapes, the old school way. The Guns N’ Roses classic, My Michelle, recalls the exhilaration of speeding down my street in the middle of the night during the first week of having a driver’s license.

If it is possible that music – and by extension, sound – can have to same kind of eye-opening effects on the person as other treatment, ideally it should be related to the subject. Telling somebody on hypertension medication to listen to chill-out or classical music doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.

For my part, it turns out Buckley was right. I had been too young to keep good love from going wrong, something I could only truly begin to accept with the benefit of hindsight and sudden re-immersion into my past.

I’d tell you to try TMR for yourself, but you’ll never quite know what sets you off and why.

But next time you get into the car and No Doubt are playing Don’t Speak, I’d suggest you buckle your seatbelt.

Jonno Seidler is a final-year Media/Communications student at Sydney University.  You can also visit his blog at: