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Sing, Memory

It’s comforting to think that no matter how addled my mind gets, I’ll always be able to temporarily return to a clearer past with the help of a song or two, playing in my brain.

It’s said that smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. I don’t dispute the connection; a whiff of the right perfume can instantly bring me back to a summer fling, just as that first aromatic mile of Gary, Indiana reminds me of any number of college road trips. For my money, though, sound, and particularly music, offers an equally strong path to the past.

I was recently reminded of this fact while driving through the streets of Evanston, Illinois, on the way to my first day of a job at Northwestern University, my alma mater. On the car stereo was Atmosphere’s first album, Overcast, a CD I’d admittedly chosen for nostalgic reasons, as it was one I’d often listen to during the tail-end of my college years.

As I cruised through campus in a daze of déjà vu, I realized I’d underestimated how easily the songs could transport me back to senior year. By the time I was looking for parking, “Scapegoat” had reached its climax and I was half-expecting to find my car transformed into the boxy Infiniti G20 I drove in 2004. Sure, I was bound to feel some memories bubbling up just being within spitting distance of the old frat house, but there’s no doubt the music made it infinitely more vivid.

A little research reveals that this highly orchestrated moment wasn’t all in my head – a 2009 brain-scan study at the University of California, Davis showed that familiar music can serve as a “soundtrack for a mental movie” in one’s head, triggering specific memory-related activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex. The research has given hope to those working with Alzheimer’s patients, as this brain region is one of the last to atrophy.

Of course, the idea of music-memory connections is not a totally new one; melodies are often used as mnemonic devices (it’s why you can remember so many song lyrics) and much music therapy relies, at least in part, on the idea that sound patterns can impact cognitive function.

It’s comforting to think that no matter how addled my mind gets – and it’s going to get really addled – I’ll always be able to temporarily return to a clearer past with the gentle prodding of a song or two. It’ll be important to determine what those tracks will be in my mind's 'ear' before it’s too late. Otherwise, I could end up with a well-meaning mix of U2, Mariah Carey, Black Eyed Peas and Justin Bieber tracks from a grandchild who searched for the popular music of “the olden days”.

My playlist will require a little more digging to get at those hidden recollections. The “Fraggle Rock” theme is a no-brainer for the early years, and “Shoop” could help inspire memories from both 6th and 10th grade. Then it gets a little more embarrassing: Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” (7th grade), Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” (high school) and even Jessica Simpson’s “With You” (one unfortunate month during college) would surely give me a good kick to the prefrontal cortex. I didn’t say this would be an easy process.

The results of the UC-Davis study (which I’m sure need more scientific verification) can also help me in a more immediate way. One of my fiancee’s best friends from high school is getting married at the end of the summer, and as part of the festivities has asked certain longtime pals to put together playlists for the reception. So Angela and I now have an hour or so to fill with tunes that’ll make the people dance – and likely, will dredge up a few old memories. That’s why the wedding will be one of the few this year to feature Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass”, a song that Angela heard in the grocery store and immediately tacked on to the soundtrack for mysterious reasons.

She’s asked that I help to rein in her nostalgic streak, making sure there’s some actual quality amidst all the inside jokes.I’m thinking it might not be the worst idea to harness the memory-jogging power of music, provided we can be sure that the “mental movies” they inspire are of good times, not bad. We don’t want a dance floor full of people who remember turning to Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” after their first big break-up.

It’s important to realize that memories aren’t static; we’re constantly creating new ones, reshaping old ones. I can’t really guess which songs, ten years down the road, will conjure up visions of this wedding, or of my own wedding, which has its own playlist in the works, but I’d guess it’ll be something I wouldn’t expect, because that seems to be how memories work. For every “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis, which became the theme song for the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent Stanley Cup run due to sheer repetition, there’s a horrible, tinny country song that unexpectedly dominates an entire afternoon spent on a porch in Cape Cod (thanks, neighbors).

You can only control the production of memories so much, and it’s even more difficult to make sure they have the right soundtrack. The brain wants what it wants – and sometimes it wants Annie Lennox.

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