How does music evoke memories in people suffering from dementia?

Every human being has a memory that stores recollections and retrieves them when there is a stimulus. It  is difficult for people suffering from dementia to retrieve these memories because the memory is deteriorating slowly. Then how is it possible that there are certain songs that do evoke memories in dementia. 

Thinking in images

People are visual thinkers. We store memories in images and pictures because these are easy to organise. When relating a recollection, people see the images associated with it. Every day we collect new memories and thus new images. The memory is never full, except when there’s too much information to store in a short time.

The memory not only accumulates images, but can also recognise things, for example; a route that has been taken before, the meaning of a specific word or what a USB- stick looks like. In dementia no new images, so no new memories, are stored in the brain. People in the early stages of dementia don’t really forget information, but they are unable to store it. During later stages, memories and images fade away more and more. First the latest memories disappear, following the steps back to older memories. This is caused by the shrinkage of the top two layers in the brain, which is explained in the article: Dementia and the brain.

Evoking memories using well-known sounds

The images or memories can be evoked when listening to a familiar sound or song. Petr Janata, Psychology Professor at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain explains that the lobe that is activated by music lies in the middle prefrontal cortex region, right behind the forehead, and is one of the last regions affected by Alzheimer’s disease. He thinks it’s as if we use a familiar song as a soundtrack for a video played inside your head. The song triggers a memory, bringing back a person or a place, which in its turn evokes a certain feeling.

The song that will evoke memories needs to be familiar. Music you listened to when you were between 15 and 20 years old triggers the most vivid sensory flashbacks. Frans Hoogeveen, lecturer Psychogeriatry and co-founder of Radio Remember, says: “These are songs we listened to a lot when we felt young and free. Moreover, we listened to the songs very often, which makes the memory-traces still deeper”.

Music evoked autobiographical memory

The scientific term for a memory strongly connected to a song is  “a music evoked autobiographical memory”. When you hear a well-known song from your past, the rhythm comes in through your ears and the basal ganglia, which is related to checking movements and to the rewarding system, is activated.  Simultaneously, the brain stem is activated, mobilising the motor neurons in the spinal cord, which also control the muscles. This causes you to move to the music, by e.g. moving your foot or swaying your hips to the melody. The melody entered the auditory cortex through the brain stem, causing you to recognise the song after the first few notes, and your superior frontal gyrus and pre-motor cortex to be activated. Because the music is stored in your brain together with the memories from the past, they will emerge when hearing familiar sounds, bringing the feeling of that time along.

Therefore music can cause such emotion-laden responses.

Despite the fact that brains shrink in case of dementia, the oldest memories stay in tact the longest. The most recent memories disappear first, going back to the age of 21. The reason for this age boundary is unknown. People suffering from dementia aren’t able to access these memories independently, but music or familiar sounds are a means to tap into these memories and connected emotions.  

Kozie can help to evoke memories through familiar sounds. Are you interested in Kozie? Please contact our team.



‘De wondere wereld van de dementie’ by Anneke van der Plaats & Bob Verbraek.
‘Why do the songs of your past evoke such viviv memories?’ by Psychology Today
‘De therapeutische werking van muziek’ by Laura Kemp
‘Wat muziek doet met je brein’  by Jop de Vrieze
‘Hoe brengt muziek het verleden dichterbij?’ by Erik Scherder

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