Music and Memory


While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?




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Walking Toward Understanding: A Review of the Movie Wild


“I’m sorry you have to walk a thousand miles just to …” Cheryl Strayed’s ex-husband, Paul, tells her. But “just to” what? Early in Wild, Strayed finishes the sentence for her ex-husband: “Why do I have to walk a thousand miles?”

At mile one, Strayed is not sure why. She’s not even sure at mile eight, twenty-eight, or thirty-six. She lumbers around sharp curves and up and down rugged terrain in order to find the answer, or answers. Strayed’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Her mother, whom she calls “the love of my life,” died of cancer at forty-five. Strayed sought refuge in heroin, and sex with multiple partners, which is what led to the demise of her marriage. She finds the answers to the why part of her hike only at mile one thousand. Strayed hikes toward an understanding of her tumultuous life that seduced her into the woods. Much like how the memoir is structured, the movie depicts both her physical and emotional journeys, the present and past paralleling one another the entire one thousand miles. Of course, we can’t help but lumber along with her.

Wild is not only about Strayed’s yen to find the answers as to why she chose to venture into “wild” territory. It’s about identity, the body, forgiveness. Several tropes represent these themes: the heavy weight of her backpack on her shoulders and back calls to mind the burden of her guilt for past wrongs. The bruises she is left with remind us of the pain of her present, and past, life. Lifting herself up under the weight of the pack, then again when she slips in a river signifies perseverance. The pruning of the pack partway through her trek can be likened to the shedding of her guilt.

The sex scenes reveal Strayed’s confusion: she conflates sex, her body, with worthiness. When a reporter pulls his car over to the side of the road – Strayed is hoping to catch a ride – he interviews her for an article and calls her a hobo. Strayed is quick to clarify that she is not a hobo, that she’s simply hiking the PCT. But she has no place to call home, no anchor, no words to describe who she is. Strayed is not a mother or a wife, labels her mother once assigned to herself.

A series of metaphorical purges (guilt purges) take place: when strayed vomits after a night of drinking with other hikers, when she erases her ex-husband’s name from the sand, and when she finally breaks down sobbing, and says, “I miss you Mom.”

I could share more, but if you have yet to see Wild, or read the book, I don’t want to spoil the ninety-four day hike for you – the one hundred degree afternoons, the sweaty silences, the blue nights and sun-bleached mornings.

So, lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and join Cheryl Strayed at the head of the PCT.


Wild Director: Jean-Marc Vallee. Staring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Gabby Hoffman.

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What Does Home Mean to You?


A couple months ago, I trudged through the thick woods five miles from where I live, in search of homeless individuals. As part of a campaign to end homelessness in Vermont, I volunteered to find people willing to answer survey questions to identify those at high risk for dying on the streets. I had driven past the woods numerous times, numb to the homeless community surviving in the dark drizzle, lost in my small world – what should I make for dinner tonight? Salmon or Lasagna? Should I buy that new couch on sale? I really should go to the gym today. But as I stepped closer to a campsite with a one-person tent and a sagging blue tarp for a roof, my fortune on the other side of the murk seemed far away and inconsequential.

I thought about the last question on the survey: What does home mean to you? Before entering the woods, I had not spent much time, if any, examining that question. But, now, with the sagging tarp and the empty tent as real as the bone-aching cold, I could not avoid it. Home: warmth, privacy, a front door that locks. A comfortable bed.

I did not find anyone in the encampment, so I did not have the opportunity to ask the question. I headed downtown to continue my search. A mid-twenty something guy, wearing a stained sweatshirt and rubbing his hands together to stay worm, was sitting on a bench. I walked up to him and asked if he was homeless and would he be willing to answer some questions that were designed to help him. “Sure,” he said and invited me to sit next to him.

I asked him questions about his health, his interactions with the police, if he had been beaten up or threatened by others, if he received any subsidies. Then, “What does home mean to you?”

“A pillow to lay my head on.”

We gave each other a nod, as if we understood one another.

But his answer still resides in my consciousness, so much so that I am working on an essay about my experience. As I write this, though, I wonder if home is a place in which we are inextricably linked, a place that represents our unique identities. Your scent planted in your pillow. Your dreams contained in your pillow.

If you have not had the opportunity to speak to someone who is homeless about what it’s like for them to survive on the streets, or ask them what home means to them, I urge you to watch the film Without a Home. “Growing up in Los Angeles, a city with a homeless population that exceeds 90,000,” filmmaker, Rachel Fleisher, fulfills her desire to understand the homeless community in Los Angeles by spending four years connecting with the lives of six homeless individuals.

I assure you, the film will change your perception of homeless individuals.

So, I leave you with two questions to consider on this Christmas holiday: what does home mean to you? How does your home speak to your identity?

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