Unearthing Rarely Heard Songs of Your Youth Is Revitalizing

Reconnecting with forgotten music from your past can make you feel young again.

Posted Sep 08, 2016

Photo by Christopher Bergland

This rare "Promotion Only (Not for Sale)" 12" remix of "Like a Prayer" is part of the author's forgotten record collection. 

Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

 We all know from life experience that nostalgic songs from your past are like time capsules that have the power to take every sense in your body right back to a specific time in your life, as if it was yesterday.

The other day, I was writing in a small coffee shop in Provincetown when out of the blue a Joan Armatrading song, "Merchant of Love," started playing in the background. Instantly, I was transported to an era of my life when I lived in Los Angeles. I rarely reminisce about this heartbroken period. This long-forgotten song opened a floodgate of strong emotions tied to a year of my life (and a person) that I'd blocked out. The song made me cry, which felt cathartic. 

Unfortunately, on a neurobiological level, when a song is overplayed, the neural network that represents the song is constantly being updated and having new memories woven into the original tapestry. This dilutes the host of memories associated with the specific phase in your life when that song was popular and in heavy rotation. 

Because I listen to music incessantly, most of the songs I loved when I was growing up have lost their time capsule powers. They're overplayed and have become blasé in the nostalgia department. The time and place when the song was actually a touchstone and struck a raw nerve, unique to that time and place, has been adulterated on a neural level. 

On the flip side, that rare one hit wonder or random song that you haven't heard in decades will instantly unlock a hermetically-sealed memory box and transport your mind, body, and brain back in time. All the smells, feelings, friends, romantic partners, etc. come rushing back in a tidal wave of vivid memories, as if you were there again in the flesh.

A 2009 study from the University of California, Davis mapped the brain while people listened to music. The researchers pinpointed specific brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions that are activated by familiar music. The UC Davis study, "The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories," was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Petr Janata/UC Davis, used with permission
When someone hears a familiar song, his or her brain shows increased activity in the regions shaded in green in this fMRI image.
Source: Petr Janata/UC Davis, used with permission

Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain has discovered that the hub that familiar music activates is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region—right behind the forehead. Interestingly, this is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer's disease. In a statement, Janata said, 

"What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye. Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories."

Yesterday, a new study from Cornell University reported that posting personal experiences on social media makes it easier for you to remember these events in the future. Apparently, for all of us living in the Facebook age, your personal posts create unique "time-date" stamps that will trigger memory recall in the future.

The September 2016 study, "Externalising the Autobiographical Self: Sharing Personal Memories Online Facilitated Memory Retention" was published in the journal Memory.

Although this is the first Facebook study of its kind, the finding verifies something that seems like common sense. I know I'm biased, but I find this study slightly disheartening. Call me a Luddite, but this study itself made me nostalgic for the 'good old days' before our entire lives became digitized.

Yes, I sort of appreciate when a random photo pops up on my Facebook homepage to remind me of where I was exactly three years ago today. But, there's something sanitized about these flashbacks; and the ethereal nature of them floating around somewhere in cyberspace creates an existential feeling of disconnection. 

Social media nostalgia doesn't give me a warm fuzzy feeling or evoke a "remembrance of things past" in a way that contains the smells and other real-world associations from all of your senses being immersed in a specific time and space. For me, most social media memories are sterile. They haven't been encoded with any rich texture the way that music automatically is, even if it's being listened to on a digital platform. 

Forgotten Songs from Long Ago Trigger Proustian Remembrance of Things Past

As someone who grew up in the '70s and '80s, the vinyl records and mixed tapes that I made in my adolescence and young adulthood held vivid analog memories that were tangible. I could hold a record sleeve in my hands while connecting viscerally with the album artwork as I watched the record spinning around on the turntable. I include the video below because I love this rare remix of "Sowing the Seeds of Love," but also as a time capsule to remind future generations how we played music in the late-20th century.Since childhood, I’ve relied on music to maintain my psychological well-being, keep me even keel, and to put me in a good mood. In 1975, when I was 9 years old, I began collecting 45s and K-tel records. By the late 70s, I was a full-fledged audiophile and spent every penny I had buying music.

In the early 80s, when the walkman was invented, I discovered music as a type of rocket fuel that inspired me to start running. While at Hampshire College in the late ‘80s, I would DJ parties in the “red barn” and amassed a huge collection of 12” remixes by Shep Pettibone and John “Jellybean” Benitez.

When I began training and racing internationally for Ironman Triathlon in the 1990s, I would make a specific mixed tape tailored to the zeitgeist and head space I wanted to create for that particular race. I would train religiously, listening to this specific playlist, day in and day out leading up to the event. I pounded the songs into my head while fortifying a specific mindset that would get me across the finish line, come hell or high water.

I would also encode each cassette with a specific scent. I have boxes full of various essential oils and esoteric colognes. When I arrived in a far away land, the combination of familiar music and olfactory cues automatically triggered the feeling of being safe and sound at home and engaged my parasympathetic nervous system.

I kept all of these cassettes in a special duffel bag for years. Hastily, in a recent purge of personal belongings a few years ago, I threw them all away. I sort of regret tossing them. Luckily, I can still find just about all of the songs from my record collection on YouTube, even though a lot of them aren't on iTunes. 

Conclusion: Rediscovering Forgotten Golden Oldies Is Like a Fountain of Youth

This afternoon, while I was writing this blog post, I took a long stroll down memory lane by digging up lots of songs that I hadn’t heard in decades. It was fun and invigorating. I highly recommend picking your brain for some forgotten 'golden oldies' from your youth that embody a special person, place, or time. And to track that song down.

In closing, most of you have probably heard the original Top 40 radio versions of the playlist of songs below. Hopefully, hearing these rare mixes will open the old memory box you have for the song, but with a new twist that creates a completely new neural network. In the future, any nostalgia created by listening to these songs will have been infused with the experience of hearing them again here and now. 

Rare 12” Remix Workout Anthems of the '80s by Christopher Bergland

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