October 27, 2021

Why Does Some Music (and some poetry) Stick in Our Brains?

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

I listened to an NPR episode of Shortwave on why music sticks in our brains and it made me think that some of the current research on music also applies to poems. The connection is emotion. Emotions are important to memory in general and songs - and I believe many poems - can make us feel a range of emotions that help our brain encode information better in our brains.

It was about the neuroscience behind those moments when you surprise yourself by still remembering a song.

Some elements that aid memory are rhyme, repetition and rhythm, which are important because they help us encode information better. 

Music always has an auditory stimulus. Poems sometimes have an auditory memory helper when we hear them read aloud. 

They found that we tend to learn the chorus of a song first - because we hear it over and over in a song. 

In school, children are often given a song memory hook - for example, learning the alphabet "song."

When a song enters your brain, neural activity in your brain stem and into the primary auditory cortex where the music gets processed. Lyrics mean that the language center of your brain will also get involved and tone and fluctuations in speech are also being processed.

If you are also reading the lyrics or following sheet music - or reading a poem as you hear it spoken - then the visual processing center of your brain also gets activated. 

Music also activates your motor cortex, which coordinates body movements. Do you ever tap your feet, sway with a poem, or dance? Probably not.

We know that when we enjoy music, our brain releases dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brain. I'd like to know if that happens with some poetry. With no research to back me up, I think sometimes it does. Deep brain dopaminergic systems like the basal ganglia get activated by narcotics and a great meal. And some areas of the brain, like the amygdala, attach those emotions to our memories.

The part of the research that really connects for me is how music and poems can help us retrieve other memories. Music may be able to connect those bits and pieces of other memories because our brain is able to pull that information from all types of stored spaces because we encoded it in different ways by listening, singing, reading lyrics and dancing.

Some people with Alzheimer's disease who played an instrument when they were younger can still play it, even if they can't remember other simpler things from their past. 



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