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Why that one song will always remind you of your ex

About four years ago, I stopped listening to one of my favorite bands. No, it wasn’t because they made a crappy album or sold out their artistic integrity.

It was because I had broken up with my partner Blanche (not her real name) after a long-distance move. If a Generationals song came on Spotify, I couldn’t help but think of Blanche because it was our band. Vivid memories of ferry rides to Staten Island would come charging back. To this day, when I hear “Put The Light On,” I can still feel the cool mist of New York Bay on my cheeks and remember the smell of the pizza place we biked miles to visit.

These moments still feel so strong because music helps write our autobiographical memories.

In the last couple of decades, research has increasingly shown that listening to music can stimulate more parts of the brain than any other human activity. By leaving traces in various nooks of the mind, songs strengthen the details in our memories — what we smelled, what we saw, how we felt.

That’s why when you hear your wedding song, the flavors of your cake or the sights of your uncle’s epic dance moves come flooding back into your mind.

These music-evoked memories can stay intact, even as critical memory centers in the brain degrade. Studies have shown, for instance, that people with Alzheimer’s disease can often keep playing instruments or humming their favorite childhood tunes while other recollections fade away.

This nostalgia can be wonderful if these erstwhile moments are worth cherishing, but what if you’re ready to ::clears throat:: move on? What if you want to drop these songs into a playlist without worrying about your exes spontaneously flashing in your brain?

This Valentine’s Day, when our minds are already filled with thoughts of love old and new, the PBS NewsHour asked three neuroscientists about why music-evoked memories are so potent — and whether we can let them go.

Do certain genres lend themselves to becoming stuck in your head?

“We Built This City” by Starship. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift. “Buddy Holly” by Weezer. “Sk8er Boi” by Avril Lavigne.

All of these songs came up in conversation when I asked people to name the music that always reminds them of their exes (Feel free to respond on Twitter or in this story’s comments, and I’ll add your songs). And while these four tracks may seem eclectic, one thing unites them: They’re earworms — songs that easily get stuck in your head.

Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University in England, has studied what makes an earworm, and says these catchy tunes share much in common with music-evoked autobiographical memories.

“Both are everyday experiences, and both are involuntary memory processes,” Jakubowski said.

Three years ago, Jakubowski’s lab released one of the largest studies on earworms — wherein 3,000 people reviewed 3,800 mainstream songs, which included pop, rock, rap, rhythm and blues and so on. Her team analyzed these reviews to expose which musical features were most commonly found in infectious tunes.

“People were more likely to get upbeat, fast tempo songs in their head than slower songs,” Jakubowski said. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ was the top named earworm in that survey.”

Earworms also tended to feature generic or predictable melodic contours — simplistic, up-and-down melodies, the kind sometimes heard in children’s songs like “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.”

Since that study, Jakubowski’s lab has begun probing whether earworms shape our autobiographical memories — and how. (You can take part and contribute your musical memories here).

So far, “it’s hard to say” whether genres are specifically associated with autobiographical memories, Jakubowski said, because this type of memory tends to be linked to whatever music you engage with on a daily basis.

If you like violins and opera, then your autobiographical soundtrack centers around classical music. If your daily commute is tuned to the Top 40, then your music-evoked memories get triggered by Gaga, Ariana Grande and Kacey Musgraves.

However, early results of the research show an interesting pattern, Jakubowski said. Specific sad songs seem to cue autobiographical memories for a large number of people.

One example is “Candle in the Wind,” which participants in Jakubowski’s ongoing work have namechecked repeatedly. In the UK, this song is often associated with Princess Diana because Elton John performed it at her funeral.

“Because music is coupled to these very emotional events, it can be a really effective cue to bring back the strong emotions that we felt at the moment when the event initially happened,” Jakubowski said. “It was quite surprising to me how many reports we had of music evoking memories of ex-partners like ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends.”

The pattern, however, is different for pleasant memories elicited by music. “Happy memories are cued by lots of different songs — that’s sort of idiosyncratic and differs from person to person,” Jakubowski said.

How the brain makes music-evoked memories

You go to my head

And you linger like a haunting refrain

And I find you spinning round in my brain

Think of this classic lyric from the jazz standard “You Go To My Head” whenever you want to remind yourself of the neuroscience behind music-evoked memories.

Music, like any sound, starts by stimulating our eardrums, and these signals get piped into the two drums of nerve cells called the auditory cortex — ”basically, the parts of the brain on the sides,” said Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies our mental music escapades at the University of California Davis.

The auditory cortex, like a mail clerk at a Post Office, sends along these musical sensations to various corners of the brain for processing. Some land in our language areas, which aid our speech. Some head to our motor regions, which guides our throat and leg muscles so we can sing and dance along.

When you get a song stuck in your head, that’s actually helping to consolidate all of the details from your memory of a specific event -- thanks to a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex.  Image by FG Trade/via Getty Images

When you get a song stuck in your head, that’s actually helping to consolidate all of the details from your memory of a specific event — thanks to a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex. Image by FG Trade/via Getty Images

For more than a decade, Jananta’s lab has scanned brains to find out which sites govern our musical autobiographies, making multiple unexpected discoveries about how they works.

You’ve probably heard of the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped brain region most touted for being in charge of storing and recalling your memories.

As it turns out, “we actually don’t find the hippocampus to be activated with these music-evoked memories unless we instruct our participants to really, really focus on retrieving the details of the memory,” Janata said. “If it’s just one of these spontaneous memories, where the details just kind of seem to flood back by themselves, it doesn’t appear that the hippocampus is engaged any more than it usually usually is.”

Illustration of the hippocampus in a human brain. Image by MediaForMedical/UIG/via Getty Images

Illustration of the hippocampus in a human brain. Image by MediaForMedical/UIG/via Getty Images

A dissected, human hippocampus alongside a sea horse. Image by Laszlo Seress/via Wikimedia

A dissected, human hippocampus alongside a sea horse. Image by Laszlo Seress/via Wikimedia

Instead, those spontaneous memories of your ex’s favorite band start right behind your forehead — in a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex, “which is where a lot of self-referential information is stored,” Janata said.

“When you think about your personal past or when you think about your friends and significant others, that’s the part of the brain that becomes activated.”

When Janata’s team looked at fMRI scans of their subjects’ brains in 2009, they found the brightest activation in the medial prefrontal cortex — a reflection of people experiencing the strongest details and emotions — when cued by song-based memories.

In other words, the vividness of the music-evoked memory corresponded with how much brain activity sparked in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The medial prefrontal cortex (left) receives signals from multiple parts of the brain. That includes the amygdala, which governs fear. Such emotional cues help make our music-evoked memories stand out. Image by the National Institute of Mental Health

The medial prefrontal cortex (left) receives signals from multiple parts of the brain. That includes the amygdala, which governs fear. Such emotional cues help make our music-evoked memories stand out. Image by the National Institute of Mental Health

When people do try to focus on these music-evoked memories, richer details can be remembered and the hippocampus lights up. But the everyday, spontaneous memories tied to music don’t seem to require the hippocampus, Janata said.

That explains why people who are suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia, where their memory structures including the hippocampus are compromised before areas like the medial prefrontal cortex, still seem to respond quite strongly to music from their past, he said

People with Alzheimer’s disease can sometimes even tell stories associated with music from their pasts, even though they might otherwise struggle to retrieve those memories if prompted in some other way.

Can you erase the musical memories of your ex?

The medial prefrontal cortex doesn’t work alone.

If you’ve ever gotten the chills after hearing a pleasurable piece of music, the tunes were stimulating the striatum — a primal nerve region located deep within the brain that governs your emotions, said Dr. Alex Pantelyat, co-founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine.

When a 2011 study tried to quantify these chills, it found that music caused dopamine — a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure, among other things — to flood two pockets of the striatum with dopamine. But these surges happen at different times points in the musical experience.

Before a song starts, dopamine rushes into the striatum’s caudate nucleus, as if in an anticipation. Once the pleasurable tunes start playing, the dopamine moves over into striatum’s nucleus accumbens, “a key area that’s activated by orgasms or drugs of abuse like cocaine.”

(That said, “it is somewhat of a misnomer to label the nucleus accumbens as the pleasure center of the brain, which some often do,” Pantelyat noted).

According to work by Janata and others, these emotional reactions feed into the medial prefrontal cortex, which then uses these sentiments to decide if a moment in your life is worthy enough to be added to your autobiographical memories. The medial prefrontal cortex is a central hub where your emotional, physical and musical experiences can collaborate to write your history.

“What we’re finding now is that when you get a song stuck in your head, that’s actually helping to consolidate these memories,” Janata said. His latest research suggests that hearing a song looping in your mind is like a rehearsal — it doesn’t only improve your chances of remembering the music itself but all the memories that you’ve connected with that song.

Our brains evolved to hold onto these emotional moments, so we return to what makes us happy but also so we don’t make the same mistakes twice -- that survival instinct includes the memories of your ex. Photo by Orlando Florin Rosu/via Adobe Stock

Our brains evolved to hold onto these emotional moments, so we return to what makes us happy but also so we don’t make the same mistakes twice — that survival instinct includes the memories of your ex. Photo by Orlando Florin Rosu/via Adobe Stock

Pantelyat said the musical reminders are so widespread in the brain, doctors can use them to fish for memories in neurological conditions that don’t involve the hippocampus.

Patients with frontotemporal dementia, for example, often lose the ability to speak, but retain the ability to sing or play a musical instrument. Some can even still improvise on the piano. That’s because music sparks the Wernicke’s area, a part of the brain responsible for speech.

“One prominent example of this was [former congresswoman] Gabrielle Giffords, who had a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound,” Pantelyat said. “What helped her recover speech was melodic intonation therapy,” which uses music and rhythmic tapping to gradually retrain one’s language skills.

This restoration is possible because there’s growing support around the idea that brains appear to record life events as engrams (or memory traces) — small circuits made of relatively few neurons. Individual engrams can also become linked together, especially if they reference emotional things that happened around the same time.

If your wedding song plays soon after the cake is rolled out and right before your brother does the worm to David Bowie, the engrams for those three things — the music, the taste of dessert and the wicked dance moves — could become tied together.

These memory traces can involve the best of times, and the worst. Some of our strongest, most visceral emotions are fear and disgust, which are processed in the amygdala — another primal brain area located near those orgasmic centers in the striatum.

And if the amygdala has a response to a stimulant, such as a song, “it’s very difficult to disengage from that,” Pantelyat said. Once upon a time, nostalgia was considered a disease.

Our brains evolved to hold onto these aversions so we don’t make the same mistakes twice. As such, losing the memories that have become associated with music goes against our survival programming.

Though my relationship with Blanche ended amicably, it still made me sad. After we split up, the Generationals continued to remind me of our good times together — but also brought along tinges of sadness. Both the positive and negative emotions likely strengthened the memories until they became unbearable. (I don’t really listen to the Generationals anymore).

And unfortunately, both Janata and Pantelyat said, there isn’t way to disconnect these feelings from music-evoked memories, far as anyone knows.

“That’s still largely uncharted territory,” Janata said.

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