The Neuroscience of Hearing the Soundtracks of Your Life

Hearing favorite music lights up the default mode network in fMRI brain scans.

Posted Apr 27, 2017

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Bob Dylan with Joan Baez during the civil rights "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," August 28, 1963
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A few days ago, I watched the first episode of the new CNN series Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History. This original series explores how specific songs throughout modern American history are tied to our collective conscience of seismic events—such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., September 11th, Kent State, the Vietnam War, etc. The Soundtracks website is currently featuring "The Power of Protest Music" (7 Decades, 10 Songs: This Is What Protest Sounds Like). 

We all have personal anthems and favorite music that will forever remind us of memorable periods in our lives. What songs spring to mind when you think of your all-time favorite music or one-hit wonders from the past that left an indelible impression on your psyche? If you were to make a playlist of a dozen songs that could tell the story of your life, what would make the final cut of your "this is my life" soundtrack?

Watching Soundtracks and reminiscing about music that defined iconic historic moments for previous generations stirred up a lot of memories. The concept of this series also made me curious to identify a neuroscientific explanation for why "oldies but goodies" strike such a deep emotional chord and take us back in time so vividly. Like everyone, the songs of my youth trigger childhood memories and still have the power to transport me back in time as if it's "Yesterday Once More" (to borrow a line from one of my favorite childhood songs by The Carpenters who I idolized as a kid and saw in concert during their The Singles tour in 1974.)

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
fMRI brain scan showing regions of the default mode network (DMN).
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The CNN Soundtracks series inspired me to go in search of some empirical evidence that might explain the neurobiology of why music has the universal power to make us self-reflective and nostalgic.

My research unearthed a fascinating 2014 fMRI study, "Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem." This study was spearheaded by Jonathan Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Laboratory for Complex Brain Networks (LCBNand published in Scientific Reports. Using fMRI neuroimaging, Burdette found that listening to self-selected favorite music activates functional connectivity of the brain's default mode network (DMN).

Although the exact function of the default mode network is somewhat controversial, most experts agree that the DMN plays a big role in retrieving autobiographical memories, daydreaming, and stream of consciousness mind-wandering. Generally, the DMN lights up in an fMRI when someone is recollecting about his or her life experiences or reminiscing about significant events.

Based on the role the DMN plays in self-referential autobiographical memories, it makes sense that hearing favorite music or a soundtrack of your life would light up the default mode network in an fMRI.

Even though each individual's favorite songs will always be different, Burdette found that the functional connectivity within the DMN of anyone's favorite music is universally the same. It doesn't matter what type of music it is, as long as the music evokes strong memories. Conversely, when someone listens to music that he or she dislikes—or that doesn't strike an emotional chord—functional connectivity of your DMN doesn't become engaged. Based on these findings, one could speculate that the personal soundtracks of our lives activate the default mode network.

Courtesy of University of Exeter
Scientists at the University of Exeter mapped brain activity using fMRI as study participants read various types of poetry and prose. They found that self-selected favorite poems light up the brain like a favorite song.
Source: Courtesy of University of Exeter

Along this same line, Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter Medical School used fMRI neuroimaging to illuminate which parts of the brain are activated when someone read various types of literature, including favorite poems.

Interestingly, Zeman found that reading self-selected poetry that resonated emotionally with a particular study participant lit up the fMRI as if he or she was listening to music that struck a deep emotional chord. To the best of my knowledge, this 2013 study was the first and only to specifically examine differing responses to someone's favorite poetry inside an fMRI as being correlated to favorite music.

When, Where, and to Whom You Were Born Shapes the Soundtracks of Your Life

The invention of the Walkman in the early 1980s made it possible for people to make personalized soundtracks in the form of "mixtapes" and listen to these audio cassettes on headphones while on the go or working out. 
Source: LesPalenik/Shutterstock

What year were you born? Obviously, the year that you were born plays a huge role in determining which songs have shaped your life experience. I was born in 1966 at New York Hospital on York Avenue in Manhattan. During the 1960s, my mother worked at Rockefeller Institute as René Dubos’ personal assistant and secretary. My mom typed the original manuscript of Dubos’ 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning book So Human an Animal: How We Are Shaped by Our Surroundings.

So Human an Animal is basically a late 20th-century assessment of how technology has the power to disconnect humans from our evolutionary biology, nature, and one another. René Dubos (1901-1982) was also a U.N. ambassador and humanitarian who fought to protect the environment and pushed for nuclear disarmament. Dubos reminds us: We are all shaped by the time we live in and our surroundings. And that our actions matter.

In the early 1970s, my mother was very active politically. She would regularly attend anti-war demonstrations and march with other women for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Like millions of people around the world, "I Am Woman" was her anthem. As I was growing up, this iconic Helen Reddy song was constantly blasting on the 8-Track car stereo. My mom would sing along at the top of her lungs whenever "I Am Woman" came on the radio.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, this song of self-affirmation, grit, and resilience is a personal anthem for me, too. Regardless of gender, I think anyone who has ever been marginalized, discriminated against, or treated like a second-class citizen can identify with the lyrics, "You can bend but never break me. 'Cause it only serves to make me. More determined to achieve my final goal. And I come back even stronger. Not a novice any longer. 'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul.'"

When I was coming out as a gay male in the late 1970s and early ‘80s I was lucky enough to have empowering classic disco songs such as “I Am What I Am” by Gloria Gaynor, "It's Raining Men" by the Weather Girls, “Y.M.C.A." by the Village People. And, of course, the ultimate (cliché but groundbreakingly in-your-face) gay pride anthem “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. These songs were all mainstream hits, but also became a personal soundtrack that helped me learn to stop hating myself as a gay teen.

The pre-HIV/AIDS innocent exuberance of these songs makes me verklempt when I hear them now. Technically, these disco songs are upbeat and happy, but they never fail to make me cry sometimes. Especially the line in the 17-minute version of "MacArthur Park" when Donna Summer sings, “I will take my life into my hands and I will use it. I will have the things that I desire. And let my passion flow like rivers through the sky. And after all the loves of my life. Oh, after all the loves of my life. I'll be thinking of you. And wondering why.” These lyrics will forever remind me of all the friends and mentors I lost during the prime of their lives who had so much more to give the world before their lives were cut short.

In the late 1980s, I was living in the West Village of Manhattan in a $375 rent controlled apartment on Gansevoort Street. I joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and worked as a waiter at Benny’s Burritos on Greenwich Avenue—which is just a few blocks up from Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn where the gay rights movement had begun decades earlier.

Courtesy of Keith Haring Foundation
"Ignorance = Fear" by Keith Haring (circa 1989) 
Source: Courtesy of Keith Haring Foundation

The nonviolent civil disobedience of ACT UP had a soundtrack, which mostly consisted of songs you’d hear at Lady Bunny's Wigstock such as "Groove Is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite or "Supermodel (You Better Work)" by RuPaul.

Madonna’s hits such as “Express Yourself” and “Vogue” embodied our gay pride at the time and were also on top of the Billboard charts. My ACT UP comrades and I would regularly be doing things such as protesting at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and dancing to Shep Pettibone remixes at Chip Duckett's massive MARS club on the West Side Highway on Sunday nights. It was a very intense time. We were fighting for our lives and dance music offered a brief reprieve from the decimation that surrounded us.

Throughout the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome pandemic, President Reagan never once said the word "AIDS." In the late '80s, homophobia was at an all-time high. There was even talk amongst Washington conservatives of giving anyone who was HIV+ a permanent tattoo, rounding them up, and incarcerating anyone with the virus in an internment camp.

I will always be eternally grateful to Madonna for having the cojones to be an outspoken gay rights activist and public health advocate—even when it wasn't a popular thing to do. At the zenith of her career, Madonna risked mainstream acceptance by including an AIDS Fact Sheet with Safe Sex guidelines in every copy of her Like a Prayer album, which topped the Billboard Charts for six weeks in the spring of 1989. Madonna wrote, "People with AIDS—regardless of their sexual orientation—deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry." In my opinion, this album is a quintessential soundtrack on the timeline of our ongoing fight for LGBTQ equality.

In 2001, the same downtown zip code 10014, where I had lived during the ACT UP era became ground zero for the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Obviously, that day changed the world and the way all of us live today. I'm sure that anyone who lived through the events of 9/11 has a specific song that reminds you of that day.

At the time, I was living in the East Village and working at Kiehl’s Flagship store on the corner of 13th and 3rd. You could see the tops of the Twin Towers clearly above the low-rise apartment buildings as if they were just a few blocks away from our "Pear Tree Corner" location. Anyone who was in lower Manhattan on the days and weeks after 9/11 will never forget the noxious smell of burning debris and humanity that permeated everything. That stench is deeply imprinted in my memory banks.

The CNN Soundtracks special chose the Billy Joel song, "New York State of Mind" as their premier 9/11 anthem. But for me, the song that captures this September 11th more than any other is "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)." Although Billy Joel recorded this song in 1975, it took on an eerie, prophetic new meaning on September 11, 2001.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Christopher Bergland relied on personalized soundtracks that activated his default mode network (DMN) when he broke a Guinness World Record in 2004 during the "Treadathalon." 
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

In 2004, I decided to hold a 24-hour nonstop treadmill YouthAIDS fundraiser and endurance challenge in the Kiehl’s storefront where I'd spent the prior decade looking at the Twin Towers through the window. The "treadathalon" was in many ways a tribute to the resilience of New York and our ability to bounce back. Although it was a life-affirming event filled with joie de vivre, there was a bittersweet aspect and element of survivor's guilt for me. While I was running, my one-word "phoenix rising" mantra was "Excelsior!" which is the the New York state motto and means "ever higher" in Latin. Excelsior captures the "if I can make it there" mindset of just about every native New Yorker I've ever known.

Dean "Ultramarathon Man" Karnazes and I ran side-by-side for the entire 24 hours, but we also had a third treadmill set up so anyone could run with us for a few minutes to help raise money for our AIDS charity.

Prior to the Treadathon, I made dozens of CD Soundtracks for inspiration during the event. The songs became like rocket fuel during the 24-hour treadmill ultramarathon. Kiehl's was generous enough to spare no expense, which included massive loudspeakers that created a sound system worthy of Studio 54. Although it was technically an athletic event, the treadathalon also became a block party. Without my colleagues and best friend Nikki Haran overseeing the event and playing DJ by cueing up musical soundtracks that tapped the hidden powers of my default mode network, I would have never broken a Guinness World Record.

What Songs Would You Include in a "Default Mode" Activating Soundtrack?

We all have personal anthems and unique soundtracks that define historic periods of our lives that were influenced by catastrophic events, personal tragedies, as well as moments of happiness and jubilation. Neuroimaging reveals that the universality of our brain circuitry and the neural responses to hearing our favorite music is the same.

Burdette's research reminds us: Any type of favorite music that strikes an emotional chord engages the DMN. But, nobody else shares your specific taste in music with your exact psychological fingerprints. So, I encourage you to take some time to make a playlist of songs that chronicle your life.

If you were to make a "This Is My Life" soundtrack for posterity that includes the music that had the most profound effect on your default mode network, what songs would you include on this playlist? If you need some help jogging your memory as to what songs were on the top of the Billboard charts when you were growing up, click on this link to the Billboard Hot 100 Archives and look for a year that held rites of passage or is a time-date stamp of significant events in your life.

Over the past few days, I've been compiling my own "This Is My Life" soundtrack. It's been an eye-opening and very emotional experience. I can confirm that making a video soundtrack of the most memorable experiences of one's life thus far is guaranteed to make you very nostalgic by activating the functional connectivity of your default mode network and opening the floodgates of autobiographical memories.

I know that most of the songs I chose for my life soundtrack listed below will not engage your default mode network. That being said, curating a list of 12 songs that create a timeline of significant life events has been such an unexpectedly poignant experience...I wanted to share the list below as a blueprint or template. Again, if you had to choose 12 songs for your "This Is My Life" soundtrack, what songs would you include?

“Default Mode Network” Soundtrack by Christopher Bergland

1. The Pilgrim: Chapter 33 —Kris Kristofferson2. Morning Has Broken —Cat Stevens3. I Am Woman —Helen Reddy4. I Can Make You a Man —The Rocky Horror Picture Show5. Shayla —Blondie6. Gold and Braid —Stevie Nicks7. Holiday —Madonna8. Flashdance...What a Feeling —Irene Cara9. Born to Run —Bruce Springsteen10. Never Too Late —Kylie11. Like a Prayer —Madonna12. Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) —Billy Joel

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Nicole Haran (1969-2016)
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Although most of the songs above are probably not going to light up your DMN in an fMRI. I know that all of the above songs remind me of my soulmate, Nikki Haran, who died in October 2016. She was only 47. Nikki and I shared the exact same taste music. If Nikki and I were put in fMRI scanners, I have no doubt that our default mode networks would mirror one another's while listening to the soundtracks of our lives.

Over a decade ago, I thanked Nikki for her friendship in my book acknowledgments writing, "UR my sunlight and my rain. Never Knew Love Like This Before. Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer. I've got Two Tickets to Paradise...Let's Go. Up Where We Belong." As I type this, I'm listening to "My Life" by Donna Summer which was one of Nikki's anthems. I cannot hold back my tears. Although my dear friend Nicole Haran is gone, her spirit lives "Every Hour Here" in the soundtracks we shared and countless other ways.


R. W. Wilkins, D. A. Hodges, P. J. Laurienti, M. Steen, J. H. Burdette. Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. Scientific Reports, 2014; 4: 6130 DOI: 10.1038/srep06130

Zeman, Adam; Milton, F.; Smith, A.; Rylance, R. By Heart An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2013; 20 (9-10): 132-158(27)

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