Music is one of the most powerful stimuli for the key memories that
make us who we are, says Roger Highfield - and we need you to tell us yours
Some memories fade quickly, such as why you tucked that yellowing
newspaper cutting into an old book or made that enigmatic jotting in
a diary. But others, from your first kiss to the last rites of a
loved one, remain vivid - and it is these that define who we are.
Anyone who has seen a parent or relative robbed of their mind by
dementia understands the link between memory and identity: without a
history a person is a glorified mannequin.
Authors and scriptwriters have also explored the issue of memory and
its manipulation - for example in the works of Philip K Dick, or
films such as Total Recall (based on a Dick short story), Memento or
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It is these moments of "autobiographical memory" that seem central to
our sense of self: without them, we cannot understand who we are or
how we relate to other people. And when one of them comes to mind, we
can reconstruct the sights, sounds, even the smells associated with
it to an astonishing extent.
One of the key triggers for such memories is music. "If you hear a
song that you have not heard since your teenage years, it has the
capacity instantly and forcefully to transport you back to that
time," says Dr Catriona Morrison of the Leeds Memory Group, based at
Leeds University's Institute of Psychological Sciences.
"We think music is also important in helping us form a sense of self
- the music with which we identify is essential in shaping our
perceptions of who we are. So in this sense music is a route into the self."
Now The Daily Telegraph wants you to take part in a fascinating
experiment to explore this terrain: the Magical Memory Tour
(www.magicalmemorytour.com). Dr Morrison and her colleague, Prof
Martin Conway, are looking for memories relating to the world's
greatest pop group, the Beatles.
The results will be presented in September in the band's home city of
Liverpool, at the annual science festival. Anyone, whether a fan of
the group or not, can take part by visiting the site and adding their
memory of the band and their music.
Dr Morrison explains: "We expect to hear about events from decades
ago that may not have been retold at all in the intervening years:
buying a Beatles album as a teenager; hearing about the death of John
Lennon on the radio; Christmas Day 1965…"
She does not want to give away too much about the purpose of the
survey in case this distorts the results, save to say that it is
intended to explore the limits of autobiographical memories. "Often
it is assumed that a failure to retrieve a memory means that the
memory was not encoded properly in the first place," she says.
"But the fact that music cues long-forgotten events, people and
places suggests the problem is not so much with storage as with retrieval."
The team also hopes to explore why music is such a powerful form of
autobiographical memory. "It may be that emotion is key - Oliver
Sachs talks about the power of music in emotional terms in his recent
book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain."
Not everyone agrees that music is important to our memories. Steven
Pinker of MIT dismisses it as "auditory cheesecake" - it's nice, we
enjoy it, but we wouldn't be any worse off without it.
Another issue is how early we can lay down such a memory. "In a
recent study in association with the BBC, we collected early memories
from nearly 10,000 people and found that the average age when the
earliest event occurred was three and a half," says Dr Morrison.
"We have analysed these memories with respect to their vividness and
the language used about them, and it is clear that very early
memories differ from memories of events from later childhood."
The team believes that this is connected with our sense of self.
"Psychologists agree that infants are not born with a sense of self -
it is something that develops in early childhood. For example, while
very young infants recognise the faces of their care-givers from the
early weeks, they do not recognise themselves in a mirror until late
in the second year of their lives."
But there are rival theories. One says that autobiographical memory
depends on language: young children lack the linguistic tools by
which to encode memories. Another involves our social skills.
"People with a poor sense of self - for example, those with autism -
score poorly on tests of empathy," she says. "Our as-yet-unpublished
data indicates that people with high levels of empathy report earlier
autobiographical memories than those low in social skills. This
suggests that autobiographical memory may be better developed in
people with high social skills."
Your recollections of the Fab Four could help reveal new aspects of
this machinery of memory. You will also be able to join the Magical
Memory Community and view and rate other people's memories -
something else the scientists are interested in looking at, to see
which stories other people relate to best and find the most interesting.
Meanwhile, below, some of the biggest names in science have got the
ball rolling for you.
MY BEST BEATLES MOMENT
Professor Jim Al-Khalili
I had my first record player bought for me when I was 11; it was a
red portable one with a handle, like a briefcase. To have something
to play on it, I bought my first record: A Hard Day's Night. This was
in 1974, so the song had been out for 10 years - but since I was
living in Iraq at the time, I wasn't so bothered about keeping up
with the latest hits.
Professor Chris Rapley
Director of the Science Museum
I was on a ferry from Hull to Gothenberg in July 1966, at the outset
of a Royal Geographical Society school expedition to Sweden and the
Arctic Circle. We were at the reception limit of a very tinny,
hand-sized transistor radio, which was the latest thing at the time.
I still remember the absolute incredulity on hearing Yellow Submarine
for first time - what on earth were they up to?
Professor Sir David King
President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
I arrived in London in 1963, aged 24, fresh out of university in
South Africa and having been asked to leave by the apartheid regime.
The Beatles' music brings me straight back to that period. Although
the city itself was still very much in need of a post-Second World
War makeover, the spirit was exhilarating and breath-taking.
Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu
My fondest Beatles memory is of dancing as a very young child to I
Want To Hold Your Hand. I must have been three or four years old, and
remember holding both my parents' hands as they "taught" me how to
dance and shouted in time with the chorus. For my parents, as new
immigrants to the UK, safety from racial abuse (and even once having
a pack of dogs set on them "for a laugh") was not guaranteed, so it
was wonderful to have that feeling of supreme safety.
That first cheerful shout of "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah", the
anthem of my early months at Oxford, encapsulates the exuberance of
the early Sixties better than anything else I can think of. Bliss was
it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.
Professor Steve Jones
Geneticist and Telegraph columnist
As a student in Edinburgh, I was collecting snails on the Isle of
Skye - and trying to avoid a student theatre group who were touring
the Highlands and irritating the natives. One Saturday night we went
to a rather drunken dance in Portree. The thespians were there and
one had a pre-release copy of Sergeant Pepper. I was riveted; but the
locals were not - there were shouts of fury and a demand to go back
to playing Jimmy Shand and His Band. I have never been able to listen
to the album since without mental interference from a Scotsman
playing an accordion.