Music-evoked remembering in the age of Big Data (2014-15)

This two-year project, representing researchers from psychology, statistics and linguistics, will expand research on memory by imaging how the brain encodes memories with music. The project will also create a website that lets visitors share memories a piece of music evokes.

PI: Petr Janata, Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain
Collaborators: Duncan Temple Lang, Statistics and the Data Sciences Initiative; Raúl Aranovich, Linguistics and Arne Ekstrom, Psychology and the Center for Neuroscience

Update (November 2017:

Music lies at the heart of cultures and societies around the world, thus intertwining with the lives and personal histories of millions of individuals. The fact that concerts routinely attract groups of fans, numbering from the tens to tens of thousands bespeaks music’s ability to shape social identities. Music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) are considered by most listeners to be a point of emotional attachment, not just to the music, but to the events, people, and places those memories comprise. Thus music-evoked remembering provides, not only a window into the minds of individuals and collective minds of social groups, but also, a vehicle for mental time-travel that bridges the personal past and future. 

There were two research goals that were furthered with this award. The first is titled, “The Neurobiography Project.” The objective of it is to better understand how autobiographical knowledge – our memories – are organized in our brains. The approach we are using is to first collect, within individuals, hundreds of memories that are associated with hundreds of excerpts of music from across a person’s lifespan, and then record functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain data as a person listens to those music excerpts and relives those memories. The idea is to then analyze the brain responses to the music excerpts in terms of the semantic content of the associated memories, to attempt to discern whether there is principled organization of that information in a person’s brain. 

The grant provided partial support for two Psychology PhD students, two Statistics Master’s students, and a Nutrition Science major interested in the psychology of music as they worked on various facets of the Neurobiography project. The majority of the effort was spent on analyses of the 200+ memories of our first neurobiography participant. We explored the use of semi-automated tools for natural language processing and found that fairly simple analyses based on most common words in the memories distinguished among memories from 8 distinct lifetime periods for this participant quite well.  Not surprisingly, initial, and somewhat simplistic analyses of the fMRI data did not immediately reveal structure in the brain activations at this level of granularity. We continue to analyze these data using other strategies. In particular, we invested considerable effort in developing a taxonomy within which to represent different aspects of self-knowledge and memories that shape our self-knowledge. Once this taxonomy was developed, we manually annotated all of the memories using this taxonomy, recently completing this effort.

The second goal for the grant was to continue development of a mechanism for obtaining the requisite numbers of memories to support the Neurobiography Project. The mechanism takes the form of a social website, which we have been calling MEAMCentral (https://meamcentral.ucdavis.edu/). We are “rebranding” it as the MusicMemoryMap Project which we anticipate rolling out to the UC Davis community this October. The aim is for this social website to provide an enjoyable experience for users to enter music-evoked memories which they can then choose to share, or not to share, with other users of the site. It’s kind of like Facebook meets Spotify. In fact, in its current form it allows users to connect a Spotify account to a MEAMCentral account and import and export playlists. The grant provided some support for two Computer Science undergraduates to help make the site more user-friendly. 

The MEAMCentral project also provided for a number of course opportunities: It served as the basis for an interdisciplinary graduate seminar co-taught by team members Petr Janata and Duncan Temple Lang in Fall 2015.  It also served as the basis for the project of two undergraduates taking part in the 2017 Statistics Research Training Grant, who are continuing to work on it this summer. Their project pertains to the characterization of emotional aspects of the memories, thereby dovetailing with the analyses of semantic content in terms of a taxonomy of autobiographical knowledge as described above. The project also provided the impetus for the Senior Design Project for a team of 4 Engineering and Computer Science seniors in Winter and Spring of 2016. They designed and implemented the MusicMemento mobile app, an accessory to MEAMCentral that randomly offers Music Memory Moments within windows of time that users designate as convenient.  MEAMCentral has also been used for course assignments in Janata’s Psychology of Music class, and the MusicMemoryMap Project will likely be a topic of an upcoming First-Year seminar.

Seed-grant-supported improvements to MEAMCentral have allowed us to start using it as a tool for data collection in a project with seniors at Carlton Senior Living in Davis, where we are piloting a weekly Music Memory Hour. In addition, these improvements also provided a foundation for a 2017 DIAL grant award from UCD’s Venture Catalyst, the aim of which is to develop and test features of the website that should make it ready for public release as the MusicMemoryMap Project.

 

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Music lies at the heart of cultures and societies around the world, intertwining with the lives and personal histories of millions of individuals. The fact that concerts routinely attract groups of fans, numbering from the tens to tens of thousands bespeaks music’s ability to shape social identities. 

Music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) are considered by most listeners to be a point of emotional attachment, not just to the music, but to the events, people, and places those memories comprise. Music-evoked remembering provides not only a window into the minds of individuals and collective minds of social groups, but also a vehicle for mental time travel that bridges the personal past and future.

The research proposed herein is a small but part of a larger, multifaceted and interdisciplinary research agenda. The focus of this two-year project is to begin mapping the dynamic structure of autobiographical remembering experiences in the human brain.

The basic idea is this: Individuals use a web app to attach hundreds or thousands of memories to pieces of music that have personal relevance. Once a suitable number of memories are contributed to an individual’s “memory scrapbook,” we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity as a person listens to a large representative sample of the music for which he or she provides memories.

The aims are much broader than opening up a new frontier of memory research. A core objective is a social website that allows for the sharing of memories evoked by music, thereby creating a database of immense value for social science researchers, and even more importantly affording a cost-effective mechanism for improving psychological health and palliative care by fostering nostalgia.

The website also serves as a music recommendation service that is driven by the latent structure of shared personal experiences, in contrast to current music recommendation strategies that are based on structural features of music or social factors such as song popularity.

Learn more about this project.