Memories, Music, & MEAMS
Wrapped within the memories of our lives a soundtrack plays on—some tracks chosen and purposeful, others there because they just ‘fit’, and still others have become embedded upon our hearts because, by happenstance, they were playing as life happened to us in all its glory and sorrow and anguish and joy.
I teach a workshop—Adverse Childhood Experiences, Resiliency, Hope & Healing—and part of the discussion my participants and I dive into when we discuss both trauma AND healing is the power of music.
Did you know that nothing, other than smell, can pull forth a memory faster than music? During a high stress experience (and remember: ‘high stress’ is not limited to negative experiences; your wedding was high stress. Giving birth is high stress), emotional memories will be linked, with atypical strength, to external, neutral, stimuli. This is why we all have a tendency to recall insignificant, irrelevant details when we recount an emotionally charged event (“I was wearing my green sweatshirt” or “I was eating a rice cake” or “Johnny Cash was on the radio”). Of all of these (again, with the exception of smell), music is particularly strong, due to the fact that our brains are already hard-wired to have an emotional response to music.
Yet here’s where it gets interesting—and complicated. If we experience an event in our life that is turbulent, painful, horrifying, or violating (in other words: a Traumatic Event), and music happens to be playing during that trauma, there is an atypically high probability that your brain will kick forth a flashback of that trauma whenever that song plays—even if the memory of the trauma itself has been suppressed, is murky, or if you do not consciously recall that the piece of music in question was playing at that time. Your brain will, literally, spike with stress-hormone Cortisol when you hear that track play, and symptoms of your anxiety, fear, or PTSD (if you have it) will rekindle upon the mere opening notes of that song. In my addictions practice, I have had former drug users tell me that they genuinely felt ‘high’ even though they were straight and sober, just because they made the error of listening to a song that was part of their old ‘using playlist’.
Such is the power of music.
Consider also, though, the highlight reel of your life—maybe it’s the day you conquered your doctoral dissertation. Or the night of your marriage proposal. Your wedding. The first time you looked into the eyes of your child. If music was playing during these events of intense joy, your brain, in turn, spooled that track or tracks up tight within that joyous memory, turning it into what is called a ‘Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory’ (MEAM)—and as such every time you now hear that song, your mind kicks out the hormone DHEA, a feel-good stimulant of sorts that will automatically elevate your mood, lift your spirits, and generate a sense of well-being and happiness.
Such is also the power of music.
Yet it is even more complex than that.
Because our brain listens to all music from its emotional place, music therefore automatically, even when it is not associated with a personal life event, evokes feelings. Garth Brooks’ 'The Dance', for example, with its poignant lyrics and melancholy beat, will create (at the very least) a contemplative feeling in listeners—if not full-on sadness—even if it is not associated with a personal time of grief for that individual. On the flip-side, Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ will not just get your toes tapping—or, if it does, it is because along with the peppy beat a feeling is evoked: happiness. All is well. Better than well, actually: it’s a ‘celebration’. Things are great!
What if a major life event happens—a trauma or a joy—and a track happens to be playing that is the antithesis of that time? Like—was ‘Celebration’ playing over the speakers at the gas station when you were robbed at gunpoint? Did ‘The Dance’ come on the radio the moment you hit ‘send’ and sent that dissertation off for review, years of hard work and sacrifice now sound-tracked by a song which, in a weirdly apt way, says “goodbye”? When the brain is confronted with this incongruence and is forced to feel two polar opposite emotions at once, the Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory becomes even forceful—for now a battle ensues as the brain, confronted with two parrying impulses, is trying to sort out how it truly feels, versus how it is supposed to feel.
In film, this technique is often employed quite masterfully. One example that has stuck with me for years (just as it was intended to) is from the old movie Prince of Tides. Within a flashback scene, the loving family is dancing to The Beatles’ happy little ‘Honey Don’t’ when their home is invaded, and as each of them are brutally raped by intruders, ‘Honey Don’t’ continues to play. The union of such a happy little ditty with such a heinous act of violence amplified the obscenity of the entire scene as the brain was forced to reconcile a track that automatically generates joy with a visual that evokes horror.
It’s powerful stuff!
In my Adverse Childhood Experiences workshop, I impart how helpful and healing music can be to the stressed and/or traumatized brain. I encourage participants to create playlists using songs associated with the most joyful times of their lives and then challenge them to sit quietly, (and perhaps draw, journal, or engage in another mindfulness activity) while these tracks play. I guarantee the music they’ve chosen will elevate their mood and pull them into a calmer, happier emotional place.
It will work for you too.
In my novel, Within The Summit’s Shadow, Andrew Gavin does not know why hearing his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth McBrien play classical guitar is so soothing—all he knows is that he craves her music and the feeling he experiences while he listens to her play.
Do you have a playlist that awakens your joy? If you don’t I encourage you to reflect upon the music of your life and to create one. To awaken the memories that lift up your soul.
And listen with an open heart…. xo