Transcending Amnesia Through Music- Sound Week


By Cleo Bergman

Imagine yourself in a room full of strangers. They smile and introduce themselves while you struggle to find a familiar face. You begin to wonder why, how you got there in the first place, and where your loved ones are. You then realize that you can’t quite recall the faces of the people you’ve known in your life. Names, maybe, but what did they look like? A few moments later you open your eyes in view of a new room, and suddenly your wife walks in. Full of relief and joy, you hug your loved one and state how you’re so glad to have woken up at last to see her face.

Before you know it, you wake up again to another room; only this time the only thing keeping you company is a familiar piece of music. Without a second thought, you start singing to the tune of the song, anticipating every rise and fall until finally, the song ends. You wake up again.

Photo courtesy of Dave Gates.

This scenario is likely similar to the case of Clive Wearing, an English musician suffering from an extreme case of amnesia that renders him unable to remember anything past a few seconds. Despite his condition, he has somehow retained two very specific memories: his wife and his music.

Amnesia is the loss of one’s memories caused by the death of brain cells through various means such as brain damage, dementia, trauma, or infections that affect the brain. Since there are different types of amnesia and brain diseases that hinder one’s ability to retain old and new memories, there is no known cure for improving one’s memories once lost.

However, in recent years it’s been discovered that music therapy can help transcend memory loss. Specific memories and emotions within the human brain can be triggered as a result of a resurfaced mood that is attached to a familiar piece of music. People who suffer memory loss often endure confusion and anxiety because they are unaware that they are experiencing amnesia. Listening to familiar music alleviates that stress, which in turn helps revive specific emotions and long-term memories from the part of the brain that the music stimulates.

Wearing met his wife when she was part of the choir he conducted with his orchestra. Both his wife and his music were significant parts of his life before he began losing his memory, thus, the emotions he felt towards the two prevailed, even as everything else he had experienced faded away. Almost every encounter Wearing has with his wife is happy, enthusiastic, and fresh in his mind because his wife evokes those familiar feelings of when they just got married. Similarly, music is a constant source of familiar emotions and gestures that help him perform the songs of his past.

Wearing is able to recall how to orchestrate and play music through a type of memory called procedural memory, which is a memory recalled due to consistent rehearsal and repetition, such as brushing teeth or tying shoes—both of which Wearing can do with ease, along with playing music. Since Wearing had been practicing music as a career, performance requires little effort to remember, while describing his wife, in comparison, tends to be a task. In other words, “remembering” a musical piece is more fluid in his mind because it is an active process that requires the brain to recall each note one step at a time, rather than trying to remember an event or person all at once.

A similar case includes a 72-year-old amnesic cellist from Germany who is able to recognize classical pieces despite not having any recollection at all of his past; he can even learn to recognize new songs despite his lack of a short-term memory. While the virus destroyed most of the cellist’s medial temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for remembering facts and events from the past and present, his musical memory is still active. According to Dr. Cartsen Finke, one of the neurologists who worked with this patient, seeing him recognize old and new music suggests that musical memory is stored differently than most memories are organized in the brain. Music is full of components that “engage(s) different regions of the brain,” which is why events that involve music, such as weddings or concerts, evoke strong, familiar feelings in amnesiac patients rather than events that do not involve music, such as meeting someone, which is information that is stored in a specific part of the brain.

As Henry Giles once said, “A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.” In terms of influence and inspiration, music can be spoken for in volumes throughout the course of human history. While doctors and scientists are still trying to understand the relationship between music and the mind, all that may need to be understood is that no amount of medicine or care can stimulate the mind as much as music, simply because it perhaps goes past the body and reaches the soul.