THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- You know those
popular songs that you just can't get out of your head? A new study
suggests they have the power to trigger strong memories, many years
later, in people with brain damage.
The small study suggests that songs instill themselves deeply
into the mind and may help reach people who have trouble
remembering the past.
It's not clear whether the study results will lead to improved
treatments for patients with brain damage. But they do offer new
insight into how people process and remember music.
"This is the first study to show that music can bring to mind personal memories in people with severe brain injuries in the same way that it does in healthy people," said study lead author Amee Baird, a clinical neuropsychologist. "This means that music may be useful to use as a memory aid for people who have difficulty remembering personal memories from their past after brain injury."
Baird, who works at Hunter Brain Injury Service in Newcastle,
Australia, said she was inspired to launch the study by a man who
was severely injured in a motorcycle accident and couldn't remember
much of his life. "I was interested to see if music could help him
bring to mind some of his personal memories," she said.
The man became one of the five patients -- four men, one woman
-- who took part in the study. One of the others was also injured
in a motorcycle accident, and a third was hurt in a fall. The final
two suffered damage from lack of oxygen to the brain due to cardiac
arrest, in one case, and an attempted suicide in the other.
Two of the patients were in their mid-20s. The others were 34,
42 and 60. All had memory problems.
Baird played number one songs of the year for 1961 to 2010 as
Billboardmagazine in the United States. The patients were
all from Australia, but the Australian pop charts are similar to
those from the United States, she said.
For most of the patients, three of the five, the songs did a
better job of prompting memories about their lives than asking them
questions about their pasts, Baird said. They also remembered
events from their lives about as well as similar people who didn't
have brain damage.
"All the patients enjoyed doing the study. They smiled, sang along and some even danced in their seats to the songs," she said. "On two occasions, participants became teary when hearing a song as it brought to mind a 'bittersweet' memory such as deceased parents. These reactions show that music is a powerful stimulus for eliciting emotions, both positive and negative, and I believe this is the reason that it is so efficient at activating memories."
For one 60-year-old man who was injured in a motorcycle
accident, several songs evoked memories of his marriage of more
than 40 years. "Bette Davis Eyes," by Kim Carnes, reminded him of
buying the single for his wife. Meanwhile, Whitney Houston's "I
Will Always Love You" reminded him of "loving my wife over the
years, many happy memories," he told researchers.
Petr Janata, a professor of psychology at the Center for Mind
and Brain at the University of California, Davis, praised the
study, saying it's "a really nice advance on what we know." He was
especially intrigued by one of the patients who couldn't recall his
past but could still sing along to some of the songs.
"It suggests that we encode music more richly," Janata said, "and this affords more possibilities for other memories to get tied in."
For her part, Baird said future research should examine how
visual images (such as movies and television), smells and types of
touch are tied to memories.
For now, Janata said, it's clear that music can help people with
brain injuries such as stroke. "Any time that you can engage a
brain and keep it active following injury, you are going to do good
things for it. Music appears to be a great way to support that
The study was recently published online in the journal
Learn more about the mind from Harvard University's
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