Happy notes, happy memories

February 28, 2017, Springer
Credit: Public Domain

Happy memories spring to mind much faster than sad, scary or peaceful ones. Moreover, if you listen to happy or peaceful music, you recall positive memories, whereas if you listen to emotionally scary or sad music, you recall largely negative memories from your past. Those are two of the findings from an experiment in which study participants accessed autobiographical memories after listening to unknown pieces of music varying in intensity or emotional content. It was conducted by Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue of McGill University in Canada, and is reported in the journal Memory & Cognition, published by Springer.

The experiment tested how musical retrieval cues that differ on two dimensions of emotion—valence (positive and negative) and arousal (high and low)—influence the way that people recall . A total of 48 participants had 30 seconds to listen to 32 newly composed piano pieces not known to them. The pieces were grouped into four retrieval cues of music: happy (positive, high arousal), peaceful (positive, low arousal), scary (negative, high arousal) and sad (negative, low arousal).

Participants had to recall events in which they were personally involved, that were specific in place and time, and that lasted less than a day. As soon as a came to mind, participants pressed a computer key and typed in their accessed memory. The researchers noted how long it took participants to access a memory, how vivid it was, and the emotions associated with it. The type of event coming to mind was also considered, and whether for instance it was quite unique or connected with an energetic or social setting.

Memories were found to be accessed most quickly based on musical cues that were highly arousing and positive in emotion, and could therefore be classified as happy. A relationship between the type of musical cue and whether it triggered the remembrance of a positive or a negative memory was also noted. The nature of the event recalled was influenced by whether the cue was positive or negative and whether it was high or low in arousal.

"High cue arousal led to lower memory vividness and uniqueness ratings, but both high arousal and positive cues were associated with memories rated as more social and energetic," explains Sheldon.

During the experiment, the piano pieces were played to one half of the participants in no particular order, while for the rest the music was grouped together based on whether these were peaceful, happy, sad or scary pieces. This led to the finding that the way in which cues are presented influences how quickly and specifically memories are accessed. Cue valence also affects the vividness of a memory.

More specifically, the researchers found that a greater proportion of clear memories were recalled when highly arousing positive cues were played in a blocked fashion. Positive cues also elicited more vivid memories than negative cues. In the randomized condition, negative cues were associated more vividly than positive cues.

"It is possible that when cues were presented in a random fashion, the of the cue directed retrieval to a similar memory via shared emotional information," notes Donahue.

Explore further: Personality, habits of thought and gender influence how we remember

More information: Signy Sheldon et al, More than a feeling: Emotional cues impact the access and experience of autobiographical memories, Memory & Cognition (2017). DOI: 10.3758/s13421-017-0691-6

Related Stories

Personality, habits of thought and gender influence how we remember

April 10, 2012
We all have them – positive memories of personal events that are a delight to recall, and painful recollections that we would rather forget. A new study reveals that what we do with our emotional memories and how they ...

Don't sleep on it: going to bed mad makes it worse

November 29, 2016
A good night's sleep may reinforce negative memories in the brain, researchers said on Tuesday, lending scientific credence to the time-worn caution against going to bed angry.

Memory strategy may help depressed people remember the good times

February 25, 2013
New research highlights a memory strategy that may help people who suffer from depression in recalling positive day-to-day experiences. The study is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

How the stress hormone cortisol reinforces traumatic memories

July 1, 2015
The stress hormone cortisol strengthens memories of scary experiences. However, it is effective not only while the memory is being formed for the first time, but also later when people look back at an experience while the ...

Feelings forge stronger memories, research shows

September 25, 2013
Bad experiences enhance memory formation about places, scientists at The University of Queensland have found.

Recommended for you

Study of 800 million tweets finds distinct daily cycles in our thinking patterns

June 20, 2018
Our mode of thinking changes at different times of the day and follows a 24-hour pattern, according to new findings published in PLOS ONE. University of Bristol researchers were able to study our thinking behaviour by analysing ...

Mind wandering is fine in some situations, study says

June 20, 2018
It's a common experience for most students. You're sitting in a lecture that covers material you already know, and before long your mind drifts and you become occupied with thoughts of what you'll do over the weekend, or ...

Rare in-vivo study shows weak brain nodes have strong influence on memory network

June 20, 2018
Our ability to learn, remember, problem solve, and speak are all cognitive functions related to different parts of our brain. If researchers can identify how those brain parts communicate and exchange information with each ...

A dual-therapy approach to boost motor recovery after a stroke

June 20, 2018
Paralysis of an arm and/or leg is one of the most common effects of a stroke. But thanks to research carried out by scientists at the Defitech Foundation Chair in Brain-Machine Interface and collaborators, stroke victims ...

Around the world, people have surprisingly modest notions of the 'ideal' life

June 20, 2018
It seems reasonable that people would want to maximize various aspects of life if they were given the opportunity to do so, whether it's the pleasure they feel, how intelligent they are, or how much personal freedom they ...

Powerful new approach helps understand molecular alterations in neurological disease

June 20, 2018
Neurological diseases are typically associated with a multitude of molecular changes. But out of these thousands of changes in gene expression, which ones are actually driving the disease? To answer this question, a team ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.