Remember When: Recalling Positive Memories Through Music

by Julianna Facchinelli

Neurologist Oliver Sacks was onto something when he said “Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring it’s memory”. We all have those songs that make us respond with a groan and perhaps a few curse words every time we hear them on the radio, but it is equally true that there are songs that delightfully transport us to a vivid moment from our past. As humans, it is common, even expected, to remember the emotional aspects of a memory, and musical cues can aid in bringing those memories to mind.

Researchers Jaclyn Ford, David Rubin, and Kelly Giovanello were curious about these notions regarding the musical connection to positive memories; they figured that listening to familiar songs would allow people to recall specific personal memories of a positive nature associated with that song. Makes sense, right? I think we’d be hard-pressed to think of an emotional, personal moment in time that wasn’t accompanied by music (sobbing to breakup songs, anyone ?). In their study, fifteen young adults and sixteen older adults were presented with snippets of popular songs from either the 2000s or the 1950s, which tailored the songs to the ages of the participants. They were asked to retrieve personal memories that immediately came to mind when listening to the songs and rated song familiarity and memory pleasantness. The study found that songs rated as highly familiar were more likely to allow the individuals to remember memories that were specific and very positive . Therefore, familiar songs increased the chance of retrieving joyful emotional memories, and this effect was found in both the young adults and the older adults. Interestingly, brain imagery taken during memory recall revealed activity in areas of the brain responsible for emotional memory processing and retrieval for both age groups. These results support the idea that the emotional memories linked to familiar music can be longstanding and brought to mind just by hearing a familiar song.

However, since the study only used common songs from specific decades, it would not be generalizable to non-familiar songs or songs from outside those time frames. It would be interesting to see this study tested out with other age groups, such as children, or even individuals with memory impairments to explore the extent of positive memory retrieval using musical influences- would it work for people suffering from memory loss? Another consideration could be the nature of the songs played: music selections were generally very positive. Future research might include sad songs to potentially retrieve negative memories, an element which this current study is lacking. Still, the findings are promising, so pay attention the next time you’re listening to your tunes—you may just be making some new memories.

Ford, J.H., Rubin, D.C., & Giovanello, K. (2016). The effects of song familiarity and age on phenomenological characteristics and neural recruitment during autobiographical memory retrieval. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 26(3), 199-210. doi:10.1037/pmu0000152



Social anxiety may cause you to see others as a threat, even when they’re not

by Kristyn Trickey, Thompson Rivers University

Think about the last time you were walking in a public place, or interacting one-on-one with another human being. In our daily social interactions, we are constantly putting out ever-changing clues as to the emotions we are feeling inside; these may include our body language, tone of voice, and, notably, our facial expressions. In addition to helping us understand what those around us may be feeling, facial expressions also let us know when we can expect someone to be friendly and welcoming (eg. smiling face), or when they might be better left alone (eg. an angry face). Being aware of when a threat may arise in a social situation is important, but for some, particularly those who experience social anxiety, this system of detecting threat may be overly sensitive, leading us to avoid or be fearful of others when it is often unnecessary.

Researchers Gutierrez-Garcia and Calvo wanted to uncover more about this. Do people experiencing social anxiety truly see others as more threatening than those without social anxiety? Therefore, would they be more likely to rate others’ facial expressions as untrustworthy? Does it make a difference whether the emotion expressed has a positive (happiness), negative (anger or disgust), or neutral (sadness, surprise or fear) connotation?

To test this out, they recruited two groups of university students. One group met the criteria for having a high level of social anxiety, while the other group had a low level. The students were shown short video clips of real people with six different facial expressions (happy, sad, angry, disgusted, surprised, fearful). Each participant viewed all the expressions at multiple intensities, including the full-blown emotional expressions, more subtle versions of the expressions (eg. 50% intensity), and purely neutral faces. In a split-second participants had to decide how “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy” each face was.

So, what did they find? Those with social anxiety do tend to rate people as appearing more untrustworthy, BUT only when those people looked angry or disgusted. Students with social anxiety were better at picking out these emotions, even when the expression was subtle; on the other hand, their ratings of positive and neutral emotions did not differ from the students with low social anxiety. However, a problem with this study is that the facial expressions shown, though morphing, were posed and potentially unrealistic (eg. more intense than what is seen in everyday life). A question for future research could be whether this sensitivity to facial changes can ever have an adaptive, protective function, or if it simply unhelpful. Keep this in mind next time you spot an angry face on your morning walk – perhaps what you see could be deceiving!


Gutierrez-Garcia, A. & Calvo, M. G. (2016). Social anxiety and trustworthiness judgements of dynamic facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 52, 119-127. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2016.04.003