Amanda Ripley

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Music, Mayhem and Memory

19th Mar 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

I was struck by a paragraph in a recent article by Natalie Angier in which she explains why we remember songs so much more easily than regular spoken words. Believe it or not, the answer goes a long way toward explaining why we tend to move so slowly in life-or-death situations.

The brain understands the world by detecting patterns:

“The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

We process what happens to us in any given moment by trying to fit it into patterns we’ve seen before. We like patterns—in music and in everyday life.

Even in disasters. (“The fire alarm is going off. Must be a drill. Let’s ignore it.”) If life doesn’t fit into a pattern, we try to make it fit. (“The fire alarm is going off. And something smells like smoke. Some fool must be burning some toast. Let’s ignore it.”) If we can’t make it fit, we will eventually adapt. (“The fire alarm is going off, and smoke is creeping through the cracks in the door. I should probably go find out which idiot is burning his toast…”) But the more frightened we are, the harder it is to think outside of the patterns. Thinking and processing new information requires executive brain functions—which tend to shut down under the influence of cortisol and other stress hormones.

So the more patterns and melodies in your brain (including exceptional patterns, the kind that come from training and life experience), the more quickly you might move through the playlist.