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Emotions inspired by music shape our most enduring memories

A study conducted by UCLA psychologists has provided significant insights into how emotions, especially those elicited by music, play a crucial role in forming memories. 

The study reveals that emotional responses to music can transform neutral experiences into memorable events, offering potential therapeutic applications for individuals with PTSD and depression.

Focus of the study 

For the investigation, the experts manipulated the emotions of volunteers through music while they performed simple tasks on a computer. This manipulation led to the creation of distinct, durable memories. 

The research team, including lead author Mason McClay and corresponding author David Clewett, found that emotional changes induced by music created clear boundaries between different experiences, enhancing memory recall.

“Changes in emotion evoked by music created boundaries between episodes that made it easier for people to remember what they had seen and when they had seen it,” said McClay. “We think this finding has great therapeutic promise for helping people with PTSD and depression.”

Memory formation 

The process of memory formation is complex, involving both the integration of memories into individualized episodes and their subsequent expansion and separation. This balance is critical for understanding and finding meaning in experiences and retaining information. 

“It’s like putting items into boxes for long-term storage,” said Clewett. “When we need to retrieve a piece of information, we open the box that holds it. What this research shows is that emotions seem to be an effective box for doing this sort of organization and for making memories more accessible.”

Emotional responses 

An interesting aspect of the study is the use of custom-composed music to evoke specific emotions like joy, anxiety, sadness, or calmness. 

Participants were tasked with creating narratives for neutral images while tracking their emotional responses. The study revealed that emotional changes, whether of high, low, or medium intensity, impacted how participants remembered the timing and order of these images.

Critical insights 

The research also highlights the significance of the direction of emotional change. Positive shifts in emotion were found to enhance memory integration, while negative shifts tended to separate and expand memories. 

Moreover, the researchers noted that participants had better long-term memory for moments when their emotions changed, particularly during intense positive experiences.

Music-based therapy

Matthew Sachs from Columbia University emphasized the potential of music as an intervention technique. 

“Most music-based therapies for disorders rely on the fact that listening to music  can help patients relax or feel enjoyment, which reduces negative emotional symptoms,” said Sachs.

“The benefits of music-listening in these cases are therefore secondary and indirect. Here, we are suggesting a possible mechanism by which emotionally dynamic music might be able to directly treat the memory issues that characterize such disorders.”

Study implications 

Clewett said these findings could help people reintegrate the memories that have caused post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If traumatic memories are not stored away properly, their contents will come spilling out when the closet door opens, often without warning. This is why ordinary events, such as fireworks, can trigger flashbacks of traumatic experiences, such as surviving a bombing or gunfire,” said Clewett.

“We think we can deploy positive emotions, possibly using music, to help people with PTSD put that original memory in a box and reintegrate it, so that negative emotions don’t spill over into everyday life.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, UCLA and Columbia University.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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