BrainI have a poor memory. I have envied people whose minds enable them to retain, correlate and build upon their memories in ways I cannot. No surprise that I once found myself wondering what it would mean to be able to remember everything. And no small irony that I forgot about it.

I was reminded by a TV documentary that gave such a condition a name, and found myself on a ‘memorable’ journey…

Channel 4’s The Boy Who Can’t Forget examined the memory of 20 year-old Aurelien Hayman, whose hyperthymesia places him in an exclusive group possessing extremely detailed autobiographical memory. Fellow sufferer Jill Price gave a rare interview in the same documentary, giving an insight into how difficult life can be for people who can’t escape their own mistakes and misfortunes. My earlier envy was looking misplaced.

The documentary gave a fascinating insight into the condition (including testing Hayman for ‘cheating’) and threw up some interesting facts – that memory enhancement techniques rely on visual cues, for example. It wasn’t long before I was wondering about sound, music and memory.

Sound thinking

Malina MoyeI’d stumbled into the field of neuroaesthetics, established by neuroscientist Semir Zeki in his book, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (Oxford University Press, 2000), which examines how the brain processes art. Using imaging techniques including trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI, which maps blood flow and oxygenation in the brain), this is giving an interesting insight into our processing of music, among the other disciplines.

One of the first things I picked up is that, despite the human brain having ‘an implicit musical ability’, brain structure differs between musicians and non-musicians. There are ‘grey matter volume differences’ in the motor, auditory and visual-spatial brain regions – these parts of the brain are larger in musicians as a result of ‘use-dependent structural changes’. A study conducted in 2003 attributes this to long-term acquisition and repetitive rehearsal of musical skills rather than a natural ‘gift’. An earlier study had discovered that professional piano players show lower levels of cortical activation in motor areas of the brain when asked to perform complex tasks with their fingers – because they have more highly developed ‘muscle memory’.

Perhaps more surprising to me was discovering that there are neurological processing differences between male and female brains. Yet more research indicates that females process music information bilaterally (using both hemispheres of the brain), while males process music with right-hemisphere predominance 

People with lifelong tone deafness (amusia), meanwhile, have ‘amusic brains’. Differences noted between them and musically capable people appear to be due to ‘abnormal neuronal development in the auditory cortex and inferior frontal gyrus’ – areas of the brain that are important in pitch processing. A further music brain dysfunction is auditory arrhythmia – ‘a disturbance of rhythmic sense’ – which includes the inability to rhythmically perform music, keep time to music or reproduce rhythm patterns. In my personal experience, this seems to afflict the majority of guys on any given dancefloor.

Supporting the disproportionate number of left-handed people involved in the arts, they and ambidextrous people have better short-term memory for pitch. There are further differences between right- and left-handers in the way in which musical patterns are perceived when originating from different directions. The southpaws always come off better.

Besides musical imagery (imagining music inside your head), I didn’t manage to find out very much about sound and memory, though. It may be there, hidden among the long words and science references, but if it is, I missed it. I know that smell is our strongest associative sense (a single-synapse link?) but music is also a powerful driver of memories. It would be good to put it in perspective.

Back on Channel 4, Barnaby Peel’s documentary also highlighted that while we have a good insight into how memories are made, we have no understanding of the mechanism for forgetting. Given my poor memory, I’m planning to volunteer myself for study on this one. Now, who was it I’m supposed to contact?

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