Happy notes, happy memories

February 28, 2017
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

Touching helps build the sexual brain

September 21, 2017
Hormones or sexual experience? Which of these is crucial for the onset of puberty? It seems that when rats are touched on their genitals, their brain changes and puberty accelerates. In a new study publishing September 21 ...

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Gene immunotherapy protects against multiple sclerosis in mice

September 21, 2017
A potent and long-lasting gene immunotherapy approach prevents and reverses symptoms of multiple sclerosis in mice, according to a study published September 21st in the journal Molecular Therapy. Multiple sclerosis is an ...

Neuron types in brain are defined by gene activity shaping their communication patterns

September 21, 2017
In a major step forward in research, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today publish in Cell a discovery about the molecular-genetic basis of neuronal cell types. Neurons are the basic building blocks that ...

Your neurons register familiar faces, whether you notice them or not

September 21, 2017
When people see an image of a person they recognize—the famous tennis player Roger Federer or actress Halle Berry, for instance—particular cells light up in the brain. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on ...

Highly precise wiring in the cerebral cortex

September 21, 2017
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the cerebral cortex of mammals, where, among other things, vision, thoughts or spatial ...

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.