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How do popular songs and movies shape memory?

A new study led by the University of Kansas (KU) has found that people tend to have more – and happier – memories associated with older songs and movies than newer ones. Moreover, the participants also tended to appreciate content that triggers a memory more, features which could shed more light on why people often manage to find meaning in lighthearted entertainment such as pop music or superhero movies.

After playing song or movie clips from either the current day or roughly ten years ago, the researchers asked participants about any associated memories triggered by the samples. The analysis revealed that older entertainment evoked more memories, but that participants appreciated both forms more when they activated more memories, regardless of the time period when the songs or movies were released.

“What we’re trying to do is understand what happens when we encounter media and how that affects us. We also look at the implications regarding our sense of identity,” said study co-author Judy Watts, an assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at KU. 

“People often travel mentally back to a time period when they re-encounter beloved media, but we want to unpack what exactly they’re experiencing when they do that. Did they have appreciation, happiness, or other emotions? Music was picked for the first study because it tends to be especially nostalgic. The second study was designed to see if those same effects would happen with audiovisual cues.”

The first experiment revealed that older music produced more memory recall and the songs were more appreciated. In addition, the memories associated with older music were also older, more positive, and had more downward temporal comparisons, meaning that although the participants felt the memories were positive, they also thought their lives were better now than at the time of the memory. Features such as memory recall, memory immersion, and positive effect were found to be reliable predictors of appreciation.

The movie clips experiments replicated most of the findings from the music-related ones, with the notable difference that specific memories were a greater predictor of appreciation than general memories. In addition, while appreciation did not seem to differ between older and newer movies, participants had a higher level of appreciation overall for movies than for music.

These findings clarify the relationship between media effects and autobiographical memory and suggest that media – including low-brow, popular entertainment – could potentially help people deal with stress and negative feelings. “We tend to assign meaning to pieces of entertainment we experience in formative times of our lives. That’s typically cast off as something that’s not particularly meaningful. But we think it matters because it’s about how you experienced it, often with people we care about, and when we revisit it, we can feel warm, happy or other emotions. We’re interested in the psychological processes of memory and media, and it is one way, I think, to speak to a person’s memories, how they connect media to a time, place, or people,” Watts concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Communication

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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