• Bill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 3/26/21 - Music & The Brain Box


“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein


I was maybe 9 years old, we were driving back from my grandparents house two towns over from where I grew up. We came upon a large structure fire. There were flames shooting 50 or 60 feet into the air. We were in an early 70s Oldsmobile station wagon and I was in the back. I don’t think the car even had seatbelts. My father drove up to the fire, and I could feel the heat through the glass, even though we were about a half block from the blaze. It was scary and fascinating at the same time. I recall distinctly that the Beatles song “Hey Jude” was playing on the AM radio. I can still see the flames and feel those feelings every time the chorus of that song plays. Every time it plays, I am a child watching that old factory burn down from the back of our Oldsmobile.


A few years back, I read a book by Sam Kean called “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.” He talks about the intricacies of the brain, how our brains can be wired differently and tales of people who experience odd things when they have experienced an injury to the brain. It contains fascinating stories, including one of a man who experiences a delay of a few seconds in what he sees. By the time he sees a cup of coffee near full, it is running over the brim. I cannot imagine what that would be like to experience the world in that way permanently.


It is also true that what we see, how we access memory varies person to person. There are people who see time in color, which is called time-space synesthesia and they often have uncanny memory of the past. The more common form of this kind of extra brain wiring is called grapheme–color synesthesia and people who have brains that work this way see numbers and letters in color and some even see musical notes in color. They are often surprised to learn that their experience is not what everyone else experiences. I bet it gives them an edge in areas of math and music composition.


I simply find these things fascinating. I don’t think I have any forms of synesthesia, as this Psychology today article discusses, music commonly engages large areas of the brain associated with memory and creativity as it fully activates the limbic system. Music lights up the brain like a Christmas tree. Perhaps that is why I like to listen to music while I write or think deeply about an issue. Listening to music is like going through a catalogue file of memories, and each song bounces me from vivid memory to vivid memory with all the related feelings. I suspect that this is not true for everyone, as some people need silence to concentrate. I did find this Journal of Biology paper on music connected memory, that identifies there is little research on this fascinating topic.


There is song by the Cure and every time I hear it, I see my wife Julie and I splashing around in a huge puddle after a summer thunderstorm around 1990. Other songs take me to other places, there is a Coldplay song that I heard when I turned my car on one morning as I drove to my facility to deal with a work-related death. Benny and the Jets by Elton John takes me in the backyard of the house I grew up in and it is the summer of 1974. The Song Windy lands me in Grants department store, probably around 1969 or 70 as it mixes in with some images of returning vets from Vietnam in the store when I asked my mom why the man was missing a leg and she told me about the war. This song by AA Bondy instantly puts me on the road to work. The list goes on and on.


The truth is that it is nearly impossible for us to know how strong such music, memory and feeling associations are person to person. We are all stuck in our own brain boxes and so it is hard to discern how our memories function that are different. If I had to rate mine on a scale of 1 to 10, I would my experience a 10. Some are certainly bittersweet, but they are all mine. It is also true that I have large swaths of time I do not easily recall, which is why I enjoy listening to old tunes, talking with people who have shared experiences or looking at old pictures. I am grateful for music and how it transports me to different places and times. I am even grateful for the chorus of feelings I experience as I move from song to song. Music even has the power to uplift me when I am having a rough day when other things do not work.


Do you have any music related memories?


I am grateful for the file cabinet of music connected memories and feelings that make listening to music like looking through old snapshots of my life, all mixed in together. Music is a huge part of my life and I am grateful for it, I am grateful to the musicians of the world who create the glue of my memories. I cannot wait till I am able to attend a post pandemic concert and salute all my musician friends who are just as eager to play.


What are you grateful for today?

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