Honestly, I don’t think most people can say that they know their favorite song with 100% confidence, but for the sake of this blog post, let’s pretend that if you are reading this, you are able to come to a decision. Encoded along with the lyrics and/or music are experiences, memories, and researchers have found that this is due to your brain’s unique response to your favorite song as opposed to listening to a song you just like or dislike.
Researchers have found that when listening to your favorite song, your hippocampus, that is partially responsible for creating social and emotional memories, functionally separates from the auditory cortex, the sensory area of your temporal lobe (Wilkins et. al 2014). They believe that this occurs because our brains do not need to encode the auditory stimulus, but rather retrieve previously encoded memories associated with that particular song. For me, this means I’m not crazy for fantasizing about a life with my elementary school crush whenever Dynamite by Taio Cruz comes on (the song they played almost every day while we would hold hands at recess), and this is exactly what I needed to hear. While your own previously encoded memories may not be as immature and boy-crazy, this process actually helps maintain “brain introspection via connectivity within the DMN (default mode network)”. Basically, the functional separation of the hippocampus from the auditory cortex that occurs when listening to your favorite song forces your brain dig up and recall memories associated with the song.
The default mode network (DMN) acts as “switch” between being in a present state of mind versus a state of daydreaming (future, hopes, dreams, etc.). This network aids in cognition while listening to someone’s preferred music, but outside of processing auditory stimuli, it can also function as a diagnostic tool when screening for certain mental disabilities like autism. It is able to function as a diagnostic tool for autism because autism tends to make it difficult for people to empathize or understand how someone else is feeling, and DMN is supposed to increase your ability to do so.
In order to examine the effects of the DMN and auditory complex/hippocampus relationship, 21 participants were gathered based on their preferred musical genre: classical, country, rap/hip-hop, and rock. Prior to gathering images of their brains while listening to music, participants were asked to rank 11 genres to make sure they only liked a certain genre of music (eliminating some bias). They were asked to provide their favorite song and it was intentionally requested to analyze the difference in the brain’s activity to your preferred genre and your favorite song (which doesn’t necessarily have to be from the preferred genre). Blood oxygen level dependent and functional MRI were collected while six songs were played for each participant. The scans were able to capture the difference in hippocampus and auditory cortex activity when listening to music they liked, disliked, and their favorite song.
Do what you will with this information, but I suggest finding the time to look for some of your favorite songs (even if they’re “old”) to see if you can sense that “favorite song feeling” of being insightful or just dreaming.
Wilkins, R., Hodges, D., Laurienti, P. et al. Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. Sci Rep 4, 6130 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep06130