Home > Memory > A Trip Down Memory Lane: How Music Invokes Involuntary Autobiographical Memories In Alzheimer’s Patients

A Trip Down Memory Lane: How Music Invokes Involuntary Autobiographical Memories In Alzheimer’s Patients


In today’s increasingly connected, online world, our personal information — and the identities that come with it — is essentially up for grabs to even the most amateur of criminals. With new data breaches causing panic on a routine basis, identity theft is becoming more and more of a commonplace crime that leaves victims scrambling to pick up the pieces. However, there is one form of identity theft from which recovery is impossible. Over 5.3 million Americans in the United States alone have fallen victim to Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) (Alzheimer’s Association, 2015)– a ruthless and cunning identity thief. Its assault is fairly subtle as it slowly strips its victims of their sense of self, whisking away cognitive abilities such as language, problem-solving skills, attention, and – perhaps most salient of all – the memories that are so crucial to the maintenance of one’s identity and way of life.

Although “memory loss” is listed as a common symptom of AD, this term is particularly uninformative due to the presence of multiple, separate memory systems that serve a variety of different functions – the loss of which are characteristic of AD. For instance, deficits to working memory – or the system responsible for holding onto new, fleeting information long enough for further processing and encoding imagesinto memory storage – have been identified in AD patients. However, most of us would probably associate the vague term “memory loss” with long-term memory (LTM) – the brain’s storage system for permanent, lifetime memories. The memories stored within LTM can be broken down into distinct types, all of which can be affected by AD: procedural, semantic, and episodic memories. Procedural memories essentially involve instructions for common, frequently performed tasks. For instance, after finally mastering the task of riding a bike, we no longer have to actively recall the steps involved. Instead, we automatically run through the motions without much conscious effort. Semantic memory, on the other hand, involves what is essentially our long-term storage of more general knowledge – for example, the “random” facts that you can recall in order to answer Jeopardy questions.

If you want to “take a trip down memory lane,” however, it will surely involve the use of episodic memory. Episodic memories involve specific, past personal events and experiences that in some cases incorporate distinct, emotional content; such prominent memories – referred to as autobiographical memories – allow for a sort of mental time travel experience upon their retrieval. For instance, hearing a long-lost, overplayed middle school dance song (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, anyone?) sends you back to 2006 in a whirlwind of memories, dropping you on the dance floor and into the awkwardly outstretched arms of your first crush.

Apart from reminding us of good and/or uncomfortable times past, a variety of functions for autobiographical memories have been theorized. For instance, drawing on our autobiographical memories allows us to reflect on previous experiences in order to solve problems and make wise decisions; furthermore, it allows for the maintenance of a “biographical identity” in that – by reminiscing on the past experiences that shaped our lives – we can track our personal development over time that contributes to our current sense of self (Bluck et al., 2005). Thus, although losses in other areas of memory are undoubtedly devastating, the extreme value of our autobiographical memories in the maintenance of our personal identity makes their loss particularly crippling. With no known cure for AD, much research is focused on enhancing the quality of life for its victims; given the critical importance of memory to our quality of life, its enhancement is thus the focus of much of this attention.

While many different approaches are showing promise, perhaps one of the most intriguing focuses on the potential role of music in the enhancement of memory in AD patients. The effects of music exposure on autobiographical memory has shown evidence of enhancement in several studies (to read an interesting and informative post regarding Alzheimer’s and music, click here), and the reasoning behind this success has generally been attributed to the stress-relieving, mood-boosting qualities of music (to watch a moving video showing the “power of music” on the functioning of an Alzheimer’s patient, click here); however, Haj et al. (2012) set out to investigate in-depth the underlying memory processes that could explain the positive effects of music. In particular, the authors wanted to investigate what they saw to be the “involuntary nature” of music-evoked autobiographical memories.

Senior man wearing headphones, eyes closed, close-up

Involuntary memories are those that are brought into conscious awareness without effort and in response to some form of perceptual cue. For example, perhaps you’re eating a piece of particularly good chocolate cake in the dining hall when you are reminded of your 10th birthday party. Furthermore, these involuntary memories are considered more specific, and their retrieval is thought to be considerably faster and more emotional than voluntary – or effortful – memories. Thus, Haj et al. (2012) believe music to act as an important cue for the involuntary retrieval of autobiographical memories which – being more specific, automatic, and emotional –has important implications for memory enhancement in AD patients.

In order to analyze the nature of autobiographical memory recall, Haj et el. (2012) asked two groups – clinically-diagnosed AD patients and older, non-memory impaired adults – a simple question: “recount in detail an event in your life.” However, participants were tested in one of two conditions; after performing a series of tasks looking into their executive functioning (essentially, one’s ability to manage cognitive processes such as attention, memory, multi-tasking, etc.), some participants listened to music of their choice, while the rest sat in silence for the same duration as the music condition. The specificity of their autobiographical recalls was assessed using the TEMPau test – a widely used measure that utilizes a point system in the scoring of memory specificity. The scale of memory specificity runs from 0 (absence of any memory recall) to 4 (recall of a specific event including details of time, space, and perceptual/sensory details), and the recalled memories were scored without the rater knowing which condition the participant was in so as to avoid any effect of bias on the results. For example, if a participant recalled a detailed childhood memory in which they remember water skiing on their favorite lake at the age of 8, yet they don’t mention any specific perceptual/emotional details (e.g. “I was terrified” or “my hands hurt trying to hold on”), their memory would receive a score of 3 on the TEMPau scale. In addition, participants were asked to rate the emotional content of their memory as well as their current mood immediately after recall.

Results from this study strongly support the authors’ understanding of music-evoked autobiographical memories as being involuntary in nature. For instance, music-evoked memories were found to be more specific, retrieved more quickly, and were associated with greater emotional content than those retrieved in the silent condition – all characteristics of involuntary memories. Additionally, these music-evoked memories had a greater, positive impact on mood than those produced in the silent condition. So what does this all mean for the AD patient? How can these involuntary autobiographical memories possibly be of any benefit?

As discussed earlier, our autobiographical memories play a crucial role in providing us with our sense of self. However, AD slowly robs its victims of the ability to voluntarily recall even the most salient memories, thus facilitating the deterioration of their sense of identity. Studies such as Haj et al. (2012) – although certainly not proposing any solutions to this crisis – provide for a better understanding of the underlying memory processes affected and offer potential, practical methods for enhancing quality of life for the AD patient.

Thus, although we may not be able to stop AD from committing its atrocious crimes, we can at least strive to lessen the effects and preserve as much of a victim’s identity as possible. As simple as it may be, listening to music may help immensely in this endeavor. While AD patients may have been robbed of their ability to take a trip down memory lane, music may provide them with the temporary yet substantial gift of comfort in the form of autobiographical memory.

To read the full Haj et al. (2012) study, click here.

To read an interesting and informative post regarding Alzheimer’s and music, click here.



Bluck, S., Alea, N., Habermas, T., & Rubin, D.C. (2005). A tale of three functions: The

self-reported uses of autobiographical memory. Social Cognition, 23, 91-117.


Haj, M.E., Fasotti, L., & Allain, P. (2012). The involuntary nature of music-evoked

autobiographical memories in Alzheimer’s disease. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 238-246.


Alzheimer’s Association (2015). 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Retrieved

from http://www.alz.org/facts/



Types of memory sign. Retrieved November 22, 2015.


Man with headphones. Retrieved November 23, 2015.


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