Temporal Warp and Your Brain

Side Effects of Classics Hits Radio

by Michael Pulsford

12 July 2010

Classic hits radio is a manifestation of the ancient oral cultural practices which never go away but rather interpenetrate modern literate culture in all kinds of ways: children's superstitions and playground rhymes; urban legends; chain letters and emails.
Image (partial) found on MashDownBabylon 

There’s a certain kind of pleasure we feel at the moment when we suddenly remember something which has, until then, been eluding us. It’s stronger when the memory itself is pleasurable, of course, but there’s something satisfying about feeling a missing piece click back into place, whatever that found piece of memory is.

Even though it’s a common enough experience there’s no single word, in English anyway, for this pleasure.  There’s ‘eureka’, but that’s what you say, not what you feel. There’s what the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran calls an ‘Aha! moment’, but this is a name for the moment, not for the pleasure itself.  Ramachandran does talk about this pleasure though, arguing that it makes evolutionary sense: those of our ancestors whose brains rewarded them for working things out probably lived a little longer than those whose didn’t.

Even if we decide the term ‘Aha! moment’ refers to a kind of pleasure found in retrieved memory, it’s still too broad to pin down the pleasure I’m thinking of, because we also have these ‘Aha! moments’ when we get a kick from solving something for the first time. What I’m interested in here is specifically about remembering, and the pleasure of recovery ‘tastes’ a little different from the pleasure of discovery.

I also want to distinguish the pleasure of recovery from the pleasure of accidentally coming across something you didn’t realise you’d forgotten. Both contain the joy of being reunited with something, but the peculiar ‘flavour’ of the pleasure of recovery contains relief, as well, relief from the tension of searching. Because the pleasure of recovery gets its charge from the tension which precedes it: the sensation we get when we can only remember part of something, or when we have a feeling of knowing without remembering what it is we actually know. 

We feel this tension when we wake, remembering only bits of a dream. We know that only moments ago these fragments were part of a charged whole that made sense, and which now recedes even as we try and recall it.

We also feel it when we meet someone we know we’ve met, but whose name we can’t remember.  William James evoked this tension beautifully in Principles of Psychology (1890):

“Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps.”

Perhaps because I’m a musician I feel this tension, and the pleasure of recovery, most strongly when I can remember only part of a melody. Sometimes a small sequence of two or three notes pops into my mind, or I hear it as part of a song on the radio, along with the sense that it’s part of something I’ve heard once but just can’t quite remember…

Now, two or three notes can sometimes be quite enough to recover a whole melody, if we remember the rhythm properly.  Think, for example, about the three bass notes which open ‘Walking On The Moon’. If we remember the sound as well, a single note can be enough: think of the first chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

Many times they aren’t enough ‘triggers’ to prompt our memory though, and a tiny piece of a melody can circulate in the mind for days, along with that most uncomfortable of combinations: the feeling of knowing accompanied by the complete inability to recollect.

This melodic fragment is an interesting thing, and it gets its power to create tension in four ways. First, it conveys the sense that it’s part of a larger whole, which makes the fragment seem incomplete by itself. The notes point toward something larger, and are not in themselves sufficient. Singing them over and over doesn’t bring pleasure or satisfaction in the way a complete melody would, it just intensifies the desire to know what the hell it’s part of.

Second, mentioned above, it’s annoying having the feeling of knowing, without the thing known being available to us.  The feeling of knowing is a handy thing when it accompanies things we can remember, because it lets us know we don’t need to learn them afresh.  When it accompanies a memory it’s comforting; as soon as it’s separated from the memory it’s frustrating.

Third, as James suggested above, we have the sense there’s only one correct answer.  The process of reconstruction and worrying at a melody is otherwise the same as the process of making a song from fragments of other songs: we try possibilities out and see how they fit. Trying to make a new song from such pieces, however, is like trying to find a name for a newborn: one answer might feel better than all the others, but there are many other possibilities that might work well, too.  Trying to reconstruct a forgotten song from a fragment is more like meeting someone and knowing you know their name but not what it is: in both cases only one answer will do.

These first three factors apply any time we want to remember something like a name. The fourth is more variable and has to do with just how much emotion we’ve knotted into the song itself. We care differently about remembering different songs, just as we care differently about remembering different people’s names. Some people are more important to us, and we want to remember their names more strongly.

In any case: usually the dilemma resolves, given a little time. More often than not, the song I eventually recall turns out to be a minor hit from when I was young.  Minor hits are perfect puzzles to try and reconstruct, if you enjoy that particular neurochemical hit I’m calling the ‘pleasure of recovery’ as much as I do. Major hits are hard to forget, so you don’t get to enjoy the moment of suddenly remembering them again. Minor hits were played often enough to knot themselves into our minds somehow, and to encourage the feeling, when we’ve forgotten them, that we should be able to remember.

The most common way of thinking about pleasure as it relates to memory is to talk about nostalgia or reverie, but neither of these really pin down the flavour of the pleasure of the moment of recovery itself. Reverie is enjoying being immersed in memory, but the pleasure of recovery is about the fact of remembering at all, not about the experience of the thing remembered.  The pleasure of recovery can apply whether or not I like the song very much. It’s just satisfying knowing it’s back in its proper place, whatever it is. A memory which has slipped out of place undermines our sense that we’re a stable entity in control of ourselves, and it’s unnerving.

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