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Music Helps Us Remember Our Pasts After Acquired Brain Injuries

Autobiographical recall to the tune of Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s pretty obvious we associate music with particular moments in our lives. A song can take you back to a place, a person, a relationship, a time. It can remind you of things long forgotten or give you a new perspective on even your most frequented of recollections. But can this tendency of ours—to associate music with memories—be used to help autobiographical recall in the event of a brain injury?

According to a new study in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, it’s possible. Researchers Amee Baird and Séverine Samson explored the topic of “music-evoked autobiographical memories,” or MEAMs, in individuals with acquired brain injuries (ABIs). Previous studies had touched upon MEAMs in people with healthy brains and those with Alzheimer’s, but the researchers believe that their present work is the first to address the topic for patients with ABIs.


Here's how it worked: Five patients and five controls were given 30 to 60 seconds to listen to a song, just enough time to hear the first chorus. As they listened, each individual completed a questionnaire assessing personal familiarity and approval of the song, as well as any memories that may have surfaced because of the song.

Songs were No. 1 hits, selected from the Billboard Hot 100 over each participant’s lifespan beginning at age 5. Accordingly, the number of songs varied with participant age.

All but one of the patients responded to the hit songs by jotting down MEAMs and, according to their self-reporting on the questionnaire, the MEAM songs were more likeable and more familiar. Notably, frequency of recorded MEAMs did not vary across patient and control groups. For the patients, the frequency of recorded MEAMs was 38-71 percent, whereas the frequency of recorded MEAMs for the controls was 41-71 percent.

Also, based on interviews done with the patients about their life memories, Baird and Samson suggest that music allowed for greater recall of memories than verbal cues.

"Overall," the researchers notes, "these findings provide evidence that music can activate autobiographical memories after severe ABI."

Case 5, the individual unable to record any MEAMs, warranted special attention in the researchers’ opinions. A male in his early thirties, his brain injury was hypoxic, meaning his brain had been denied of oxygen, due to an attempted hanging. He rated 56 percent of songs played for him as unknown in the original MEAM study. In a second test, which played 20 songs that according to his family should’ve been familiar to him, Case 5 sang along, albeit out of tune, and yet still initially rated his familiary with such songs as fairly low.

Baird and Samson suggest Case 5’s impairment may have to do with “impaired pitch perception,” which is why he sang songs in the wrong key. As they note, “previous research has shown that recognition of familiar melodies is more dependent on pitch than rhythm perception.”

No doubt, this study is on the smaller side of the spectrum. A study involving five patients and five controls cannot claim to definitely tell us whether or not patients with ABI-related amnesia will benefit from musical therapy. “The current findings contribute to the limited literature on music and cognitive rehabilitation after ABI and highlight the potential benefits of using music as a stimulus in memory rehabilitation,”  the authors write.

The key word is potential. This offers an opportunity for further study, an opportunity the researchers implore someone to take up. “We hope this study promotes others to undertake clinical research on this novel topic as larger group studies are required to examine the utility of MEAMs in ABI population.” In other words, further researcher with larger numbers of participants could provide more insight into the actual mechanism of MEAMs and how to appropriately use music as rehabilitative therapy among those with acquired brain injuries.