Why do the songs we loved in our late teens and early 20s trigger such powerful memories? The power of music to prompt feelings, memories and even physical responses has led to it being used more and more in cognitive therapy.
During our teens and early 20s, a combination of rapid brain development and hormones means our brains create really strong neural connections to songs that stay with us throughout our lives – memory researchers call this the ‘reminiscence bump’.
Researchers at the University of Leeds have suggested another reason – in this same period of life many of us experience “the emergence of a stable and enduring self.”
The power of music to prompt feelings, memories and even physical responses has led to it being used more and more in cognitive therapy, particularly in relation to stroke, Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Researchers have found that the parts of the brain where music aptitude and appreciation happen are the last to be affected in Alzheimer's sufferers.
Listening to familiar music can not only help improve patients’ cognitive ability but also relieve emotional and physical stress, allowing them to maintain physical functions with less reliance on medication.
But what actually happens in our brains when we listen to music?
When we hear music that we like, an ancient part of our brain called the striatum releases dopamine - effectively, our pleasure centres go nuts.
It’s the same way our brains respond when we eat delicious food or have sex.
When we listen to music there is increased activity in the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain in charge of motor control and muscle movement, researchers at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research have found.
When we hear a song, our bodies have a reflex-like reaction to the rhythm, which can help organise and balance our movements.
This is what's happening when we hear a song and can’t help tapping our toes or clicking our fingers.
Therapists have used this response to help stroke patients improve their coordination and balance.
This video from The Guardian illustrates just how powerful music can be. It shows the pioneering collaboration between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hull Integrated Community Stroke Service, which uses group music-making to help stroke survivors' recovery.
Can Music Heal Trauma? (Pitchfork)
Music Therapy - How And Why It Works! (The Odyssey Online)
The Coolest Thing About How Music Triggers Memories (New York Magazine)