Music and Memory

By Siiri Gilness


People tend to think of art, music, theatre, and literature as pleasant yet nonessential facets of our lives, enjoyable pastimes, yes, but not vital to our health and survival.  But what if the arts are more ingrained into our physiological wellbeing than we realize?


Neurologists and researchers have touched on this idea by studying the impact of music on memory-impaired individuals.  Some believe that those suffering from memory loss can experience an increase in cognitive function when listening to pieces of music that have had meaning in their lives.


A 2014 documentary titled “Alive Inside” explores this remarkable phenomenon by chronicling the effects of music on a select group of individuals suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  “Alive Inside” opens on an interview with a 90-year-old woman as she struggles to answer questions about her childhood, admitting that she can no longer remember.  But when given time to listen to a playlist of music from her youth, her memory seems to come alive.  She is able to recall the names of favorite songs and share personal anecdotes based on memories triggered by the music.


Another poignant excerpt from the documentary features an elderly man named Henry who has been impaired by dementia for more than a decade.  Henry’s condition has rendered him inert and uncommunicative.  However, his countenance changes dramatically when headphones are placed on his ears, connecting him to a stream of old favorite songs.  He becomes immersed in the music, singing and moving to the beat of much-loved tunes from his earlier life.  When the music ends and Henry’s headphones are removed, the effect continues for a while.  Caregivers are able to engage him in conversation and he becomes animated and responsive.


As to the question of why and how this phenomenon exists, the answer lies in the complexity of the human brain.  The areas of the brain that involve music are believed to be less impacted than other areas by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, leading researchers to speculate that if those music retention centers of the brain can be stimulated, then perhaps they can serve as a gateway to deeper memory recall.


For those of us who have observed the debilitating effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease on our loved ones, the idea that we may be able to connect with them and provide them with a restored sense of self through music is an uplifting and fascinating revelation.

Art Matters is a weekly column sponsored by Leach Theatre, a division of Student Affairs, on the campus of Missouri S&T, and produced by Emily Brickler, Managing Director of the theatre and ten-year veteran teacher with a Masters of Art in Teaching from Webster University.

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