Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Stuck on Replay

Listening to Music, Whether I Want to or Not

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door

A whisper in the mind, quietly melodic and slightly ingratiating.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’

But wait. I’m not a believer. Stop!

Knock, knock, knockin’ on…
Knock, knock, knockin’ on….

Useless to protest. Dylan wrote it. Dolly Parton sang it. Who knows where or when? The only words I remember, or should I say the only words that remember me, are “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.” There was certainly knocking on my door, and the sound was getting louder.

You know the feeling. First: the melody, naïve, harmless. Then a few words join the tune, gentle reminders. Then, not so gently, a line emerges. It’s as much of a line as you will hear. You go about your business, you get on with your day. But there it is, at odd intervals: persisting, wanting in.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door

It isn’t a religious experience. It isn’t even music – not really. It’s an irritating little eruption, a breach in the wall of separation between chance and fate, a minor transgression of that boundary between the conscious and the unconscious mind. It’s risen from the ocean floor where your treasure chest of memories rests, perhaps with a rusty chain wrapped around it three times. But alas, not wrapped tightly enough to prevent an escaping tune, a blast from the past, an earworm.

Over a hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud wrote an unfunny book about jokes. Jokes could be elusive, Freud mused: “Often they are not at the disposal of our memory when we want them; but at other times, to make up for this, they appear involuntarily, as it were, and at points in our train of thought where we cannot see their relevance.” (Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905, p. 168)  Like earworms, jokes can be intrusive, erupting suddenly at the threshold of awareness. But while jokes insinuate themselves with puns and allusions, earworms just keep battering away at whatever barrier you may have erected to protect your sanity.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud described psychological mishaps as ordinary as a song getting stuck in the head. These mental glitches include the forgetting of proper names, foreign words, phrases, and impressions. In the edgy negotiation between conflicting intentions, opposing motives known and unknown, temporary amnesias play a strategic role. Repression offers the conflicted person a brief reprieve, one of the benefits of forgetting. The trouble with earworms, however, begins not with an act of forgetting, but with one of remembering.

Perhaps Freud’s thoughts most relevant to earworms concern the early treatment of hysterics. Freud said of his patients that, “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences.” (Abstract, On the psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomena, 1893, p. 244) Hypnosis was thought to cure the hysteric by awakening a traumatic memory that had been submerged by repression. Freud imagined the hysteric’s forgotten memory as a foreign body irritating its host: “We must therefore suppose that the forgotten memory has been acting like a foreign body in the mind, with the removal of which the irritating phenomena cease.”

The earworm, though far less malign than hysterical illness, will act like a foreign body in the mind until it is expelled or ceases spontaneously. How to expel it? This is not a trivial question, since the “control mechanisms” for suppressing earworms may one day be adapted to treat PTSD. (Williamson, Victoria J. All in the Mind, BBC Radio 4 interview, November 30, 2011) For now though, scientists’ advice is the same as conventional wisdom: listen to the entire song, listen to another song.

More than a hundred years after Freud, psychiatrist and neurologist Oliver Sacks has used engrossing case histories of his patients to explore the mind in the light of psychopathology and neuroscience. In Musicophilia, Sacks talks about the ways his patients have been haunted by music, ranging from musical seizures to musical hallucinations. Earworms, which he prefers to call brainworms, are described in a chapter called “Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes.” (Sacks, 2007)

Unlike the neuropsychiatric hauntings disclosed by Sacks, brainworms belong to ordinary human experience. Sacks notes the repetitive nature of brainworms and their fragmentary onset: “often a short, well-defined phrase or theme of three or four bars.’ (p. 44) For Sacks, the experience of brainworms is an instance of normal musical imagery ‘crossing a line’ into pathology, and though he doesn’t indicate the underlying neurological process by which this line is crossed, Sacks speculates on its likelihood: “The endless repetition and the fact that the music itself may be irrelevant or trivial, not to one’s taste, or even hateful, suggest a coercive process, that the music has entered and subverted a part of the brain, forcing it to fire repetitively and autonomously (as happens with a tic or a seizure).” (p. 44) Brainworms may be among the involuntary repetitive phenomena experienced by people with Tourette’s or OCD, but the near universality of brainworms is “the clearest sign of the overwhelming, and at times helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music.” (p. 49) 

How then does it begin? According to Victoria Williamson, who conducts research in the psychology of music, there are two common triggers for earworms, or INMI: Involuntary Musical Imagery (How Do Earworms Start? Psychology of Music, 2011) The first is Music Exposure – listening to the song – rare in my case since any involuntary memory retrieval is usually of songs I heard in my teens. The second common trigger is Memory Triggers, or the sparking of memories associated with music. Williamson’s research subjects mentioned visiting a place or seeing a person associated with the music that haunted them.

Usually I’m not aware of specific memories that set a musical intervention in motion. Instead the songs emerge bit by bit, and it’s often not until they have become full-blown presences that I stop to wonder why that particular song. In the last few years I’ve been stalked by a repeating song cycle, a medley of memes. It begins with:

Ba-by, now that I’ve found you
I can’t let you go

Baby? What baby? There’s no baby in my life.

I’ll build my world around you
I need you so

You say what? I’m not building it up, I’m building it down. Cutting back. Scaling down. Divesting myself. Getting ready to travel light. No more householder.

Ba-by, even though you don’t need me,
You don’t need me.

And I hear The Foundations go on about it for a couple of weeks. Then life gets busy; phone calls and emails get exchanged. I mail a birthday present. The season turns.

If you’re feeling sad and lonely
You and I should be together

I watched a YouTube video of this song with my son in his place in New York, and during the whole video a girl sat in a chair chain-smoking to the music. Why the chain-smoking? I wondered. My son said because it was a song about addiction.

Call me, don’t be afraid you can call me

I prefer the video of Nancy Sinatra, even if she does have big hair, even if her singing is a little too talky.

Maybe it’s late, but just call me
Tell me, and I’ll be around

So I guess that’s what the smoking girl is hearing from her addiction: that I’ll always be there for you. And then Call me expires. I’m back in the house with two guest rooms. It’s not like I don’t have a life of my own. We email and chat. I buy furniture and read novels. I pull up every weed in the garden. Next up: Fleetwood Mac.

…time makes you bolder

OK, that one got started after I heard the song on Glee.

Children get older. I’m getting older too.

Who put this medley together? Do I mean medley or mashup? Mashup or mix-up?

Well I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I built my life around you

These songs are all starting to sound alike, but this one has to run its course. I contact old friends. I visit them. They visit me. And then a new song:

It was sweet and funny, a pleasure ground

This is always risky. Once my INMI starts channeling Laura Nyro I could be hearing entire albums, song after song.

Did not know about money, did not know about Timer

My darling friends, oh I belong to Timer

Time to pay the bills, the taxes, the insurance. My darling friends are travelling. They visit China and Turkey. They vacation in Tahoe and Palm Springs. We keep in touch.

He changed my face

You’re a fine, fine one Timer

You’ve got me walking through the gates of space

I get inspired by new ideas. My smile comes back. More and more, it’s hard not to smile. Time doesn’t go too fast or too slow. I make appointments and plans. The universe is vast and from my vantage point, unending. There’s always something new to explore. I laugh at the worry that the sun will burn out in, what is it, five billion years? The world is more than enough for me.

The medley seems to be over.

So we have these involuntary memories, some of them, like earworms, unwelcome and intrusive. What happens then, when I’m plagued by a few bars of music and try to exorcize it by listening to the whole song? If the song has lyrics, as is the case with most of the music in my earworm repertoire, what happens if I listen to the lyrics and think about their meaning? Can I reconsolidate my involuntary memory so that when it’s back among that treasure trove of pop songs, laid to rest at the bottom of the sea, it contains new information? Can I update involuntary musical imagery by thinking about why it intruded – or as Sacks puts it, subverted a part of my brain – at a particular moment in time?

I learned about memory reconsolidation literally yesterday – on the Internet. At the World Science Festival program on “The Unbearable Lightness of Memory,” which took place on August 18, 2011, cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps explained how, whenever a memory is retrieved, it has to go through a storage process, and how, during the time that memory is being reconsolidated, it is vulnerable to disruption. (Phelps, Phelps’ research tells us that our memories are more malleable, and therefore more fallible, than we once thought. But the same research also tells us that memory is dynamic. The likely reason the human mind has this potential for disruption built into its system for storing memories is to enable us to update memories with new information.

As panel participant Lynn Nadel put it, “memory is always in play.” Nadel, a psychologist who has contributed to the study of memory reconsolidation and developed the cognitive map theory of hippocampal function, explained that, “Every time you reactivate a memory, there is the possibility of strengthening that memory, of disrupting it, or of updating it." Whether those possibilities are also there every time a memory reactivates you, as in the instance of earworms and other involuntary intrusions, is best left to the scientists.

Are some people more susceptible to involuntary memory incursions than others? What circumstances might influence susceptibility? In a study conducted for BBC Radio 6 Music, Victoria Williamson discovered that earworms often start playing when we are in a ruminative state or in a low-attention state, bored, or even asleep. Perhaps at such times the boundaries between the conscious and the unconscious mind are more permeable, allowing agents and messengers from the other side to slip through.

My admittedly limited experience with psychic permeability occurred during a period of chronic sleep deprivation. Of course, my memory of the occasions on which I anticipated various events may be unreliable for that very reason. Make of it what you will. At the time, I had ambivalent feelings about being psychic. Every year in Berkeley there is a psychics’ convention, and during that week cardboard signs sprout up all over the city directing the psychics to their meeting place. There’s always much hilarity about the elaborate signage required by the psychics.

My sleep-deprived mind seemed to resonate, that year, with extra time sense, however. No sooner would I think of someone I had been out of touch with than the phone would ring and there he or she would be. I had vivid thoughts of a friend two days before hearing he had died. I remarked to my husband, “It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything from” my cousin, and the next day a cousinly letter appeared in our mailbox. Most curiously of all, since I pay little attention to celebrities, one day this random thought popped into my head: “I wonder how Jane Fonda’s marriage is doing.” The next day I heard the split-up of Fonda and Tom Hayden announced on the radio. Yes I know, I might somehow have heard that uninteresting piece of news before the thought popped into my head, but I don’t think so.

All of this psychic stuff worried me so I consulted an equally sleep-deprived friend in my mothers’ group who had mentioned having similar experiences. It turned out that Rosalind had had so many experiences of this kind that she had once considered cultivating her sixth sense. Ultimately though she decided against it, because whenever she predicted something about the future, “it was always something bad, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” She advised me to get some sleep.

Possibly psychic phenomena – these time-warped ideas that pop into the head – will turn out to be, like earworms, manifestations of what German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus identified as “involuntary memory retrieval.” (Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, 1885) Perhaps one day such experiences will be better understood through experiments in reconsolidation.

Freud performed just such a reconsolidation experiment on an involuntary memory of his own that had greatly perplexed him when it occurred. Freud, who deeply appreciated the culture of classical antiquity, made his first long anticipated trip to Athens in late middle age. Standing for the first time on the Acropolis, his thoughts took a surprising turn: “So all this really does exist, just as we learned at school.” (Freud, A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, 1936, p. 241) 

Freud’s investigation of the meaning of this disturbance of memory was recorded many years after the event. The investigation took the form of a voluntary act of memory retrieval by way of self-analysis. Freud reconsolidated (strengthened) his involuntary memory by recalling its context: the trip with his brother to Athens and, earlier, his own inexplicable feeling of depression at Trieste when the prospect of visiting Athens became immanent. Freud identified the defense mechanism underlying his perplexing reaction as derealization: the feeling that ‘what I see here is not real’, or that an experience is ‘too good to be true’. He then reasoned with himself: he had not really doubted the existence of Athens, or what he was taught about it in school, so why this sense of unreality on seeing the Acropolis? Freud recognized that what he had doubted in boyhood – owing to his family’s poverty – was that he would ever travel so far, that he would ‘go such a long way’. (p. 246) By the time he visited Athens, Freud had far surpassed the conditions of his boyhood, and of his father – an uneducated merchant.

The meaning of the disturbance of memory now became clear, and Freud was able to finish reconsolidating (updating) the memory: “A sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction of having gone such a long way… it was something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation which took the place of the overvaluation of early childhood.” (p. 247)

Freud, the father of modern psychology and psychotherapy, has undergone a half-cycle of overvaluation and undervaluation. In default of today’s scientific understanding of the brain, Freud used various working models of the mind, among them his economic model, which “developed in the wake of nineteenth century physical science based on the conservation of energy.” (Hinshelwood, R.D., A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, 1989, p. 278) Within the last ten to fifteen years, neuroscience research has created an accurate picture of the workings of mind and memory. Still more recently, cognitive mapping of the brain and discoveries related to PKMzeta  – the memory molecule – have contributed a detailed knowledge of the biological basis of mental processes. Today, scientists can count the number of synapses involved in encoding a memory. Knowledge of memory storage and reconsolidation is based on experiments using the scientific method.

In addition to his working models of the mind, Freud used metaphors such as that of an archeological excavation to understand mental processes. Freud’s literary sensibility endowed him with a subtle understanding of a range of psychological phenomena, from the allusive quality of jokes to the indirect representation of the subject in a dream. Freud understood the manipulation of symbols in language both conscious and unconscious. Insights about figurative language contributed to Freud’s major discoveries about the workings of the unconscious: “Freud explored the unconscious and came up with certain rules of unconscious mental activity – displacement and condensation. These rules explain the way in which symbols are handled in the unconscious.” (Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, p. 451)

Our memories, whose storage system, we now know, operates in precise ways at the molecular level, are yet accessed by us through language. Freud’s literary sensibility allowed him to see how defense mechanisms and the language of dreams worked analogously to figurative language. Despite the necessary limitations of Freud’s scientific knowledge of the brain as mental substrate, his insights concerning the language of the unconscious continue to be useful. As long as language remains the main currency for transactions between the conscious and the unconscious mind, Freud’s exploration of the unconscious will remain a source of enlightenment.


Like the corners of my mind

Can it be that all was so simple then?

Or has time re-written every line?



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