A young woman with a weakened sense of smell, and a heightened love of music, explores the science behind why songs can have such a powerful pull on memory and emotions—especially when other senses fail you.
It’s Friday night, and the taste of cheap beer from a flimsy plastic cup lingers on my lips as the band strikes its final, final note of the night. The room is packed to capacity, and we show-goers are all stuck, like cattle. Someone moos; people laugh. My ears are ringing from standing too close to the speakers, and my eyes are overwhelmed by the sea of colors pulsing before me – tattooed arms, dark crimson lips, a rainbow explosion of hair colors: electric blue, neon green, fire engine red. The crowd is electric. All I see is neon. My senses are on fire. The air smells of cigarette smoke mingled with cheap cologne tinged with underage trouble. Adolescent abandon.
Smells like teen spirit, I think to myself, chuckling soundlessly.
I was born with a weak sense of smell – not quite anosmia, the inability to perceive odor at all, but a decidedly duller olfactory gland. The physiological connection that most people have linking familiar scents with particular memories is lost on me. But part of the beauty and mystery of being human is how the body and the mind can work together to compensate for our shortcomings. Where there is a will, there is a way – that sort of thing. And so, for me, songs have become my sonic guides, my means of finding my way back to certain memories and people and places that exist in this mental, temporal map I’ve rendered over the years.
Tonight, I absorb every sound, every note, every subtle reverberation. Slowly, the crowd begins to move toward the exits, the floor of the venue sticky with spilt beer and slick with puddles of mud that we have trekked in from the gloomy, rainy outdoors. Even though the forecast called for a thunderstorm in Anaheim, California, tonight, no one believed it, and thus no one was prepared for the downpour that began half an hour before the band’s set and continued long after its first, second and third encores.
My date reaches back through the crowd, grabbing my left hand with his right, pulling me forward through the throng of tipsy teens. We weave through the masses and make it to the door, finally, where a blast of fresh evening air hits my face as the crowd bursts forth from the venue, our slow, sticky shuffle turning into a steady stream of bodies filling the once-empty parking lot with noise and dance and shadows contorting in the dark rain.
Hellogoodbye was the pop-punk headliner that night. I remember them well. I remember that evening well. The year was 2003, and the band was still in its formative years. I was still in my formative years then, too. But while I remember the sensation of being in that packed, musty concert venue quite vividly, what I remember more so is the other music I was introduced to that night, the new ways of listening.
* * *
It’s long been thought that smell is the most powerful trigger for memory, due in large part to the olfactory nerve’s close proximity to the hippocampus, that area of the brain that scientists associate with memory. A whiff of a familiar perfume or the scent of a freshly baked apple pie can supposedly be enough to transport people from the present to another place or time. An ex-lover’s favorite rainy-day burrito joint. Saturday afternoons in the kitchen with grandma after a particularly satisfying morning cartoon marathon. But recent research has proven that sound – and more specifically, music – has the power to activate parts of the brain that other stimuli – even smell – can’t quite access.
In 2013, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson published a unique study on the role that popular music can play in rebuilding memory recall in patients with brain injuries. What the Australia-based pair discovered is that songs from the Billboard Hot 100 (in other words, those that have ingrained themselves into our broader social consciousness) can actually help patients recover “music-evoked autobiographical memories” (otherwise known as MEAMs) from that period of their lives.
“Listening to and making music engages nearly all brain regions and cognitive functions we know of,” Baird says. “This is why it is such a unique stimulus. Its powerful ability to elicit both memories and emotions is also linked to this activation of the whole brain [but] it is often tricky to disentangle what is elicited first – memory or the emotion associated with it.”
The catch, however, is that the song needs to be tied to something or someone meaningful for that particular patient. Playing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” one of the most overplayed songs in music history, might not be an ideal trigger for MEAM recovery, since it would likely do little more than conjure up embarrassing karaoke memories – for most of us, at least.
Baird and Samson aren’t the only ones who are picking up on the significance of a neurological link between music and memory. The 2014 documentary Alive Inside follows social worker – and the founder of the nonprofit Music & Memory – Dan Cohen as he explores the power of music in reawakening our emotional selves even after we’ve lost bits of our identity to the passage of time. The nonprofit seeks to improve quality of life for the elderly via personalized music playlists that help them access their memories and reintroduce their past selves to their present beings. Over the course of several years, Cohen traveled throughout the country with boxes of iPods in tow, reintroducing familiar music to elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease via personalized playlists. In doing so, he awakened their dormant inner selves, unearthing deep wells of nostalgia and activating memories even the patients had thought to be long-lost.
“Music connects people with who they have been, who they are, and their lives,” Cohen explains matter-of-factly in the documentary. “Because what happens when you get old is [that] all the things you’re familiar with and your identity are all just being peeled away.”
One patient in particular, Henry, created a stir online in April 2012 when a clip of him reacting to jazz classics went viral online.
In the video, the former musician, who had closed himself off from the outside world and become virtually mute after spending years in a nursing home, comes alive and sings and gestures wildly when Cab Calloway is piped in through his headphones.
“It gives me the feeling of love. Romance!” he expresses when asked about what music means to him. “You’ve got beautiful music here. Beautiful. Lovely. I feel the band of love. Of dreams.”
* * *
The rain is still coming down hard as we make a mad dash for his car, which sits sullenly at the other end of the lot. The car is filled with the scent of a new air freshener that hangs from the rearview mirror. Its smell — what I can make of it — reminds me of the sugary candy he bought me on our first date some weeks ago. It smells sweet.
“You good?” I ask him, seeing if he’s okay to drive, my words slurring a bit as they escape my mouth. He nods, bleary-eyed. A beat. He shakes his head.
“We can just sit for a minute,” I offer. He smiles, nods, and silently reaches over to open the glove compartment. The rain drums rhythmically on the hood of the car, liquid bullets bouncing off a steel bull’s eye.
“Got you something,” he says. “Hope you’ll like it.” He pulls out a thin envelope that he crafted from a folded sheet of college-rule notebook paper, my name scrawled across the front in blue ballpoint ink.
“Hey. Thanks,” I say, turning it over in my hands. The package feels light, fragile. “What is it?”
No response, just a wan smile. He pushes his glasses up his nose. “Open it.”
The CD inside is reflective, and it is unlabeled, save for an “O” carefully drawn onto its surface in black Sharpie. I almost miss it. I glance up, trying to read his expression, and watch the raindrops’ shadows slide down his face for a moment. He looks anxious, expectant. I slip the CD into the player as he starts the engine.
“Track four,” he says, clicking his seatbelt into place and putting the car in reverse. And so I skip ahead.
There’s still a little bit of your taste in my mouth
Still a little bit of you laced with my doubt
It’s still a little hard to say what’s going on
I look inquisitively at him in the dark as we pull out of the parking lot, but I say nothing, feeling that this is important, that we listen to these songs in silence. The singer’s voice is raspy, textured, layered. The buildup of strings behind his vocals creates a safety net that catches the rise and fall of his timbre as the song progresses. The ringing in my ears subsides, the residual noise from the show washing away with the rain. The soft thud and streak of the windshield wipers creates a continuous background loop, adding to the harmony of this drive home.
It’s as though I’m experiencing music for the first time, learning the language of sound anew. Before, the exclusivity of music was more contingent upon the price of a cover charge than on the connectivity of musician to listener. Now, I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a different kind of music. This song, this voice, this sound, is a novel form of exclusivity. There is something bare bones, wistful – no, soulful – about this man’s crooning. His voice holds my interest because it holds me at bay.
As the lyrics of the song unfurl, the voice seems to be saying, This song isn’t about you. This is about me. I imagine the singer scribbling poetry on a used napkin in the corner of a noisy bar while everyone else is shouting just to be heard.
“Who is this?” I ask as the fourth track comes to an end. I am lulled into a kind of inner peace I haven’t felt before, a calm that compliments the singer’s smoky vocals. I am enamored by his voice, his charm, the fantasy of it all.
“Damien Rice,” he says. I nod, making a mental note of the unusual name. “Cannonball,” he adds, gesturing toward the speakers. He glances out the window at the rain. “It’s a good song for a night like this, no?”
* * *
I still remember listening to that album in that car vividly. That rainy night in 2003, that CD, that boy — my first high school boyfriend. The sweet scent of something new. I remember the show at Chain Reaction and I can still picture the way he looked that night, the expression on his face as we sat in silence listening to Damien Rice’s first album, O. He looked earnest – innocent, even.
But in three years’ time, I will break up with him. He will refuse to listen when I explain that sometimes people need to grow apart as they grow up, and that even stories that have sweet beginnings can go sour with the passage of time. We will be on different pages of the same book, and I will have the unsavory task of having to tell him so. It will not be easy. It’s really a matter of semantics, I will explain to him calmly. When protective becomes possessive, and desire becomes dependency, the narrative is no longer that of love. It is lust. No, it is lost. Somehow, we got lost. I got lost.
I don’t remember when it all began. But even now, when I listen to songs from Damien Rice’s first album, I can still remember every time my phone buzzed at three in the morning after my boyfriend’s father beat him yet again, the way the blood on his face mingled with his tears and mine, and I remember, vividly, how my hands felt rubbed raw from always wringing out washcloths as I would try to wipe, wipe, wipe his pain away. I remember the weight of his sighs and how his sobs sounded in the empty locker-lined hallways after school and that warm feeling of being wanted, desired, needed, by another human being.
I remember how he closed himself off from his family, his friends, his peers. I remember, too, how he would berate me for spending time away from him. For wasting time with my family, my friends, the people who were concerned about my well-being. He gripped me too tightly, leaving scratches and dark marks to prove to me that he cared about me more than they did.
I remember the day I realized I’d had enough.
My bruises and scars can heal, I explained to him, only if you give them ample time to. Give them some space to breathe. Give me some space to breathe. I need to breathe. My arms were covered in an entire Kaleidoscope of colors by the time I finally got the nerve to say this. My mind had been twisted and bent every which way but my own when I finally reached this point of clarity.
* * *
These memories are not ones that are particularly pleasant to revisit, but their existence and my ability to recall them are important to my present narrative, the one that I am living on a daily basis. If memory serves as a kind of time travel, then music is the fuel that ensures I have the strength to get both there and back again. Our emotions are inextricably tied to the music we listen to, just as our memories are tied to our emotions: how we remember what we experience is just as important as what we went through.
Sight, taste and touch, too, play a large role in the things that we recall, and how we remember our past selves. When we hear a familiar song – say, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – we are all of a sudden transported not just to another time, but also to another place (“There are places I remember” isn’t just a Beatles song lyric, after all). We often attach certain songs to certain places, and vice versa – and so when we remember a place, we also tend to remember the visual and visceral aspects of that particular memory. What we saw. What we ate. How we felt.
“When music evokes a memory of a specific event, or let’s say the bar you used to always hang out at while you were in college, all those components [of the event] end up getting tied together,” says Petr Janata, a professor of psychology at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. “The hippocampus is really important for spatial memory and also for binding certain memories together. And different things can serve as retrieval cues.”
“So you can hear the music and then it’ll conjure up the memory of the bar and you’ll remember where it was located, or a smell could trigger the memory in the same way. Or maybe it’s a photograph of the place that triggers the memory and all of a sudden, the music’s playing in your head. All these senses are bound together.”
Five years after that rainy night, I dated a man who was also a fan of Damien Rice, and I did that most instinctual, annoying thing that everybody does when they start to overanalyze their relationships: I began to draw comparisons between him and the high school ex. Hearing Damien Rice’s first album in a different context still conjured up memories of that first relationship, but now, I had the added complexity of several years distancing me from those initial emotions.
“His voice sounds like some kind of deep purple velvet. Maybe velour,” I say, glancing out the window at the lights of downtown L.A. as they whip by. Neon signs, streetlights, turn signals blinking on and off – the afterglow of a city all tuckered out. It’s dark outside, and heavy drops of rain pelt the windshield and ricochet off the hood of the car as we speed through the near-empty streets toward our dorms back at the University of Southern California. I fog up the glass with my breath, spell out the letters “H-E-Y” backwards with my index finger on the smooth surface, writing from right to left.
“Is there even a difference?” I ask, turning to face him.
“Potatoe, pa-tah-toe,” he replies from the driver’s seat, glancing at me out of the corner of his right eye. He smiles and takes his right hand off the steering wheel, reaching for my left. Green light. Go. His hand is warm, a welcome contrast to the cool night air streaming in through the cracked window. “Tell me more.”
“It’s rich. Smooth,” I say after a beat. “Soulful. The kind of voice that makes you go ‘ooh’ and ‘mmm,’ ya know?” We’re on our way back from a show at The Hotel Café, a small music venue nestled at the base of Hollywood Hills, and we’re trying to pinpoint who or what the singer we just saw sounds like. The best way I can think to describe his voice, I explain, is in textures and colors. This isn’t synesthesia. It’s just another way to see the world, I say. A weaker sense of smell means my hearing has to step up its game.
“So…purple,” he says, humoring me with his question. He is dubious of my color-coded, tactile descriptions.
“Yeah. But, like, a really deep purple,” I reply, knowing even as I form the words just how silly I sound saying these things aloud. “Okay, take Damien, for instance,” I say abruptly, nodding toward the backlit dashboard and the smoke-inflected voice disseminating through the speakers.
So why’d you fill my sorrow
With the words you’ve borrowed
From the only place you’ve known
And why’d you sing Hallelujah
If it means nothing to ya –
Why’d you sing with me at all?
A few minutes pass as we both retreat into our own thoughts. I think about the importance of traction between two surfaces on this slippery, rainy night. Traction. Attraction.
“Deep green?” he guesses. Red light. Stop.
“Hm. No…more like grey,” I say. “So very, very grey. Like smoke and sandpaper and ash and stones with rough edges.” He nods like he understands, but I know he does not. Not that it entirely matters whether he does or not, since he prefers to compare and contrast voices quantitatively: Better. Worse. On a scale of one to ten, how emotional is this singer? How deep did he dive to search his soul? This is what anguish sounds like: True or false? But perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps it’s not his fault that he doesn’t understand how one weaker sense has left me to depend heavily on another.
“There have been studies with blind and deaf patients where their sense of modality will take over that part of the brain that was dedicated to the sensory modality that is no longer available to that person,” Janata explains. “So basically that part of the cortex gets collapsed into that other sensory modality.”
The man signals and makes a left onto Wilshire Boulevard, pulling over to the right side of the street two blocks later, tires hugging the curb as the car slows to a stop. He puts the brakes on. The pitter-patter of rainfall grows louder as the engine dies down, a surround-sound harmony swelling behind Damien Rice’s heart-wrenching vocals.
“Come on,” he says as he unlocks both our doors and pushes his open after glancing out and back for oncoming traffic. I open my door on the passenger side, let the cool air and the rain hit my face all at once as I step out into the night and the atmosphere envelops me. I am losing myself in the water, in the wind, in the moment. I slam the door shut, but a few more lines manage to escape out of the speakers through the sliver of space between steel and glass, words wafting out from the dry warmth of the car.
Like smoke and silk, I think.
I run around the hood of the car to join him where he is waiting, leaning against the driver’s side door, already looking off into the distance, across the street at the Urban Light installation just outside the L.A. County Museum of Art. Two hundred and two towering, antique cast iron streetlights stare right back at us. The lights vary in design and height, some with single bulbs, others with two, all of them reaching up toward the invisible, upside-down abyss from which the sky is steadily falling. They are braving the rain, emitting a collective, powerful glow that dares the increasingly temperamental weather to dampen their shine.
“Oh good, it’s still standing,” I say to fill the silence.
“I love it when it rains like this,” he says finally without taking his eyes off the lights. I haven’t seen him blink once, but it could just been an illusion. “It’s like, grey. But, like, a deep, deep grey.”
I can’t tell if he is mocking me or if he has finally caught on to the ways in which some things only make sense when we allow our senses to take over and dictate meaning. I start to feel the effects of the cold, standing still on that winter night, sopping wet in the rain. I am starting to lose all feeling in my right hand. It is numb. Numbing. I am numb. Nothing. I am nothing.
Suddenly, the combination of rainy weather and Damien Rice on the radio has transported me back five years, to that previous relationship, to another headspace I thought I’d closed off somewhere in the knotted passage of time. But it makes sense that this can never, and will never, be the case. Because what music does is help us to recover, rebuild, and rediscover ourselves in a new context – it resurrects memories both good and bad. As with a watercolor painting, each new listen to an old song contains within it years of experience and multiple translucent layers of our identity.
So in a sense, then, music is what awakens us to see a more complete picture of our pasts – and of ourselves.