Music and Nostalgia

One of my good friends from college posted this on Facebook yesterday and it got me to thinking — why is music from our childhood so meaningful to us? What is the relationship between music and the feeling of nostalgia?

In 2008, a team of researchers at the University of Leeds, England, published a definitive analysis of what they call “The Reminiscene Bump”, which describes the phenomenon of remembering more of our younger adult lives more vividly than later years. The period, between the ages of 12 and 22, is a time when we develop the most fundamental sense of our identity. Music nostalgia, then, is a neuronic command — a lighting up of the neurological and biochemical systems which fortified in those years when our psychological formation and receptivity was most vulnerable. Music that moved us most deeply during that time become programmed into our brain in a way that makes us hardwired to feel this nostalgic surge of emotion when we hear it, anytime again, for the rest of our lives. Petr Janata, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, explains that our favorite music “gets consolidated into the especially emotional memories from our formative years” — that the qualities of our “Reminiscence Bump” is especially attributed to the neurology of emotions during the decade of our youth and young adulthood.

Brain imaging studies show that our favorite songs releases an influx of “feel good” neurochemical hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin. From the years of 12 to 22, when we make neural connections to a song, we create a strong memory trace ladened with heightened emotion, which is especially enhanced at that time due in part to our pubertal growth hormones which tell our brains that everything is incredibly important. Therefore, the songs and experiences we have during that time become an integral part of our sense of self and our identity.

Another way that music affects our physical body — and our attachment to these effective songs — is its stimulation of our various faculties. If you sing along to a song in your head, your premotor cortex will become activated. If you dance along, your neurons will synchronize with the beat. If you are paying close attention to the lyrics and instrumentation, your parietal cortex will activate — that part of the brain which helps you shift and maintain attention to various stimuli. If you listen to a song that triggers personal memories, your prefrontal cortex will activate — that part of the brain which maintains information relevant to your personal life and relationships. All of this stimulation and brain/body coherence fortify a song into the very network of our being — and when we consider the raw psychological/neurochemical/hormonal vulnerability that we experience in our youth, we can understand that the music we hear at that time is more effective than any other music we will hear in the years beyond. This music defined who we are in our core — which explains why when we hear this music, we experience a surge of emotion and significance unlike the memories tied to music we hear and love beyond our mid twenties.

For my friend Andy, this music included Radiohead, RX Bandits, and Duke Ellington. For me, this music consists of artists like The Beatles, Boys II Men, Lucinda Williams, Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, TLC, Sublime, Jeff Buckley, Fiona Apple, and more. As my musical tastes have expanded to other genres and artists, I can still hear and feel how this music comes through the music I create today. It is my foundation.

What music from your younger years helped to shape your own identity? 🙂