Using music to evoke autobiographical memory

Personal comment on Using music-evoked autobiographical memory training to aid identity recovery after severe brain injury by Foxhall and Gurr
published in Division of Neuropsychology Newsletter Summer 2014

Summary of the article

This article looked at the situation of a 47-year old man, JR, who after multiple subarachnoid haemorrhages presented with severe amnesia, confabulations, disorientation and a limited understanding of his emotions. Based on the Koelsch and Siebel model (2005) for neuropsychological pathways in music processing, a memory training programme was developed to aid retrieval of autobiographical memories and reflect on emotional experiences by repeated exposure to popular music from JRs preferred musical era, that of the late 1970s to 1980s. The researchers found that 85 per cent of the first playlist of 13 songs promoted recall of specific autobiographical memories, but this decreased with increasing repetition of the sessions. He did maintain the memories he had regained and even on one occasion remembered a prospective memory. Initial reporting was factual, but JR eventually discussed more from an emotional perspective and personal meaning, thus a new life narrative was facilitated. The effect led to memories being cued without the use of the musical stimuli and an increase in mood and motivation.

Personal Comment

The results of the study are not completely surprising since not all information relating to an event is consciously learnt. Unattended information such as smells and noises also finds itself as part of the stored memory even if not registered at the time of the memory input. Emotional state or how we feel about our experience at the time can also be stored as evident from our feelings of happiness or distress at seeing someone, or like or dislike on tasting certain foods. Therefore, the observation that certain songs can stir potent memories is not surprising, particularly when the music being used is linked to the teen years or to significant parts in a person`s life. For JR the playing of these songs led to the recall of information from a time in his past that had been shut away from him thus allowing him to access his autobiographical memories. It even improved his emotional take on that time and influenced his current mood and motivational levels. Any spur to recall of past events is welcomed and in JR`s case had benefits well above that of normal factual remembering.
The study also indicated that prospective memory could also benefit from the playing of music since one song reminded JR of a future intended event. Comment on that particular observation is not entirely supportive of Foxhall and Gurr`s conclusion since the example is not actually a prospective memory. However, the idea that prospective memory can be aided by linking to music is exciting especially when this type of memory is so difficult to influence positively.

Since we`re chatting about the topic…………………..
..would it be right to assume that distinctive smells would also elicit the same cue to factual memory recall, but the effect is hindered by their rarity?

.. can we say that the increased recall of the emotional side to memories may not be just because of increased recall of the factual aspect, but also JR`s increased willingness to talk about his feelings?

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