When it hits you, you feel no pain

If you recognized the lyric from above, good job. If you didn’t recognize the lyric it’s from the song Trenchtown Rock (1971) written and performed by Bob Marley. Trenchtown is a neighboorhood in Kingston, Jamaica. It is considered the birthplace of Reggae music.

One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain
So hit me with music, hit me with music.

I can have a complete sensory experience with this song just by closing my eyes. The music washes over me like waves wash over people standing in the ocean. But it’s not just this song that can effect me profoundly. There are songs that can make me incredibly sad, ones that cause unbearable happiness, and ones that make me feel like I can fly.

Some songs are linked with a time frame and a lot of people experience this phenomena. Music learned during adolescence, a time of mental growth and new experiences, seems particularly likely to transport people back in time. The tendency to remember the pop hits of the [insert decade here] is called a reminiscence bump. Music helps people suffering from dementia and loss of memory from traumatic brain injury because music, essentially, hangs out in the same area of the brain as our past memories and emotions. (Want to have some kind of meaningful dialogue with Grandma? Make a playlist of music that was popular at the time of her adolescence – the soundtrack of her life – and she will start talking about her life.)

For me, some songs are also linked with people. I wasn’t really aware of that link until a couple of years ago; until the week I euthanized my 12-year old dog and drove halfway across the U.S. to attend my aunt’s funeral and drove back home. I listen to the radio when I drive and there I was – driving, singing along with the radio, and every once in a while, without warning or provocation, tears would well up and spill over. The connection between a person and a song probably isn’t a direct one. Just as people with memory issues associate a person to an emotion (which is why Grandma is happy to see you even though she doesn’t actually remember who you are) I was likely unconsciously associating a song with an emotion and, if that emotion was one I associated with my aunt, then BOOM, lightning and “Oh, how I wish it would rain … ” (The Temptations, 1967)

Now that you have this information in your brain about memories and emotions and music, what should you do? Exactly, you should exploit it. I’m going to assume you are working for the common good, the betterment of humankind, or at the very least, are strongly motivated for self-improvement or mental well being. Use music as a motivational tool. Pick songs that evoke positive emotions and memories of the kind that help your situation. It doesn’t have to be “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor, 1982) because you want to crush your opponent on the football field. It might be “All About That Bass” (Meghan Trainor, 2014) because you want to feel bold and empowered and that you can handle walking into a nightclub for the first time since your divorce even though you are worried you might puke. It might be “Martin” (Zac Brown Band, 2010) because that song makes you feel calm and peaceful and you desperately need to feel (and look) calm and peaceful. You pick your soundtrack.