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Memories, Mind Palaces and Music

Agrasen Ki Baoli - an ancient Indian step well in Connaught Palace, New Delhi

Time only moves forward. What happened a moment ago, is in the past, and so are your experiences from yesterday, last month or the last decade. This is, of course, obvious. Our understanding of this is reflected nowhere better than in the human desire to travel back in time. Let alone the ability to go back and change the course of past happenings. Just imagine how fascinating it would be if we could even navigate an Atlas of our lives, kind of like we use maps! Swipe left, swipe right, pinch or zoom, to seek and re-live the profound or the mundane moments of our lives, and feel what it was really like. We try to accomplish this through the recollections in our minds as well as supplements in the form of text, audio, pictures or video, but we often fall short. The thing is, when we try to remember, our memories seem to capture us, our activities and our emotions, from a distance, almost from a third person perspective. But there is something which can help us remember more intimately, and that is music.

Music has a knack of stimulating memories, taking us back to the time when we first heard that music. Many of us have those associations, of songs that remind us of a certain time in our student lives, or perhaps of an old house where we used to live, or places we used to visit for vacations as a teenager. And the way the memory is elicited is so smooth yet so powerful. There is no struggle. Just turn on the music, close your eyes and you could almost be there — the paint worn and cracking in that corner of the wall, the sound of a street vendor calling out his wares, the smell of flowers and incense from a temple nearby, your own younger, edgier self, all summoned up effortlessly by the music. I remember listening to FM radio in its early days in Mumbai in the 90s and I can still hear a phantom radio transmission hiss modulated into Freddie Mercury’s voice, every time I listen to “We are the Champions”.

And it’s not that music only aids nostalgia. It can also be used for memorising. Learning “by heart” or rote learning has been the de facto method of learning for a long time (and still is, in many countries and cultures). The fact that music can trigger associative memory has not escaped our notice. We teach numbers and alphabets to children by means of songs and rhymes. Before even understanding what it means, kids are able to retain and recite “Now I know my ABC’s. Next time won’t you sing with me?” In many cultures and communities, there are song or chant based methods of memorisation which have been practised for centuries. The ancient Indian Vedas are supposed to have been composed and transmitted orally by the aid of highly developed chants, before being subsequently committed to text. Even after conversion to text, Vedic chants have survived alongside Vedic texts, aided perhaps by the inability of successive societies to mass produce and distribute text artefacts.

There is also the related method of loci or mind palace made famous by BBC’s Sherlock Holmes for memorising an enormous amount of information. A mind palace is a space, a palace, in the mind, with a great deal of minute detail, and the technique of memorisation is to associate a tiny amount of information with each element of detail of the mind palace. While it is generally believed that the mind palace is an invention of the ancient Greeks, there is also evidence to suggest that Australian aboriginal cultures combined song, dance and stories with actual physical locations to create mind palaces. The tribals call these combinations of actual physical paths with location-specific songs as what we might translate as “songlines”. These songlines served the function of a “table of contents to the entire knowledge system” of the tribes. So the association between music and memories is indeed quite strong and quite old.

But how is it that music exerts such a powerful influence on memories? The reason memories associated with music are powerful is because they are supposed to make neural connections in the brain, binding together the music, experiences and emotions felt at the time. In fact, the associative effect of music on memories from adolescence, is especially intense since everything is felt more intensely as you transition from a teenager into an independent young adult. As you gain your own sense of identity, the music that you hear and discover of your own will, melds into your identity. It also seems intuitive to note the distinction between incidental memories that could be triggered by music listening, and specific knowledge that could be reinforced by the use of music as a mnemonic device. This is not surprising and it is related to the way memories work in the human brain.

The brain holds two kinds of memories, explicit and implicit, where explicit memories are those stored and retrieved through deliberate and conscious mental effort, and implicit memories are those that are remembered without any conscious effort. Implicit memories are supposedly more robust and even manage to survive in people afflicted by Alzheimer’s, brain injuries and depression. In such cases, there seems to be a strong connection between the implicit memories and the music the person might have heard at the time. This connection is even considered strong enough to evaluate the use of music as a memory stimulant for people with dementia or depression. So, music induced nostalgia corresponds to implicit memories, and music aided learning corresponds to explicit memories. You could even say that learning with music as a mnemonic, is a way of adding some of the robustness of implicit memories to explicit memories.

Despite the long history and intimate connection between music and memories, things may be changing dramatically. Like we noted before, we supplement our memories with text, photos, audio or video. Today, in the age of digital information, we can record and preserve these artefacts with the finest fidelity and then access them with the most immediate ubiquity. From the earliest audio CDs to unlimited music streaming, even the way we listen to our music has been transformed thoroughly. Would these associations still continue to hold? What is the future of memories and mind palaces? I have shared my thoughts about these questions in another post. Meanwhile, go on, play your favourite music from your adolescent days, and reminisce a little!