Contributed by Alex Russell
A snatch of music can evoke powerful memories. Now a team led by UC Davis psychologist Petr Janata is working to building a map of brain regions that react to music that triggers particular memories. The results will expand our knowledge on how the brain encodes memories. It could also provide a way to improve quality of life for those suffering debilitating conditions including Alzheimer’s disease.
“This technique is really at the fore of neuroimaging research right now,” says Janata, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010 for his work on music and autobiographical memory. “There are various types of experiments that show people large libraries of images and then try to reconstruct the images based on their brain activity. That’s similar to this idea but no one has done it with music.”
Their research uses a Web platform for crowdsourcing written memories. The website plays a 30-second clip of music and then asks questions like, “On a scale of one to five, how strong does a memory experience does it evoke?” The questions are all pre-programmed based on how a visitor responds. If a visitor reports that a music clip evokes a strong memory, they are prompted to write that memory out. Then they are asked to play another clip.
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A handful of visitors to the website have already submitted hundreds of these music-evoked memories. The team plans to invite some of these “super-users” to undergo a brain scan while they listen to those same clips. That way, the researchers may be able to identify overlaps between the language-based concepts in the written memories and areas in the brain that light up on the brain scan when they hear the music.
Janata is hoping to pinpoint areas throughout the brain that show more activity when a participant listens to a clip of music that sparks a powerful memory. By knowing beforehand the content of those memories, it might be possible to create a map — a “neurobiography” — with those memories.
“You get away from these overly rehearsed memories and instead you have a way of getting at these remote, forgotten events,” says Janata.
In January, Janata and his team won two years of seed funding from the Institute for Social Sciences to expand this work. The collaboration includes Associate Professor of Linguistics Raul Aranovich, Professor of Statistics and director of the Data Science Initiative Duncan Temple Lang and Associate Professor of Psychology Arne Ekstrom.
Learn more about the project at the ISS website.
Video: Janata explaining how the brain processes music (World Science Festival)