Musical memory not like normal memory

Strange evidence from amnesiacs suggests musical memories are stored in a different part of the brain to other memories.


Words by: Charlie Jones

One of the many mysteries of brain is why amnesiacs often retain their musical abilities. Now, it seems that musical memories are retained in a separate part of the brain to others. The BBC reports:

When British conductor and musician Clive Wearing contracted a brain infection in 1985 he was left with a memory span of only 10 seconds. The infection – herpes encephalitis – left him unable to recognise people he had seen or remember things that had been said just moments earlier.

But despite being acknowledged by doctors as having one of the most severe cases of amnesia ever, his musical ability and much of his musical memory was intact. Now aged 73, he is still able to read music and play the piano and once even conducted his former choir again. Now researchers believe they are closer to understanding how musical memory is preserved in some people – even when they can remember almost nothing of their past.

Musical memory isn’t necessarily the same as other types of memory, says Dr Clare Ramsden a neuro-psychologist with Britain’s Brain Injuries Rehabilitation Trust, which is studying the case of three musicians, including Mr Wearing. Clive Wearing plays well, but he has no memory of having played before. “That’s potentially because it isn’t just knowledge. It’s something you do,” Dr Ramsden says.

Different aspects of playing music involve different parts of the brain, she has concluded. “The research we’re doing is starting to show that people with damage to mainly their frontal lobes, their musical skills are affected differently to people like Clive whose medial temporal lobes are damaged. “Clive can still play and read music, but people with frontal lobe injuries might have difficulty reading and performing a piece of music for the first time, but are better at pieces they already know,” Dr Ramsden says.

Prof Alan Baddeley of the University of York, who has written study papers on Mr Wearing, said he was not surprised by the findings of the German team. “PM’s case is a very good example that memory isn’t unitary, that there’s more than one kind of memory,” he said. “Amnesia doesn’t destroy habits, but sufferers do lose the ability to acquire and retain information about new events.”

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