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Science. Communication. Community.

Why Do We Remember Countless Song Lyrics, But Not Our Studies?

This week, students across the nation are preparing for final exams.  But why is it easier to memorize words from the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen than from a professor?

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

During the exam, will he remember this, or "Call Me Maybe?"  (Image credit: mer chau via Flickr)

During the exam, will he remember this, or “Call Me Maybe?” (Image credit: mer chau via Flickr)

As finals week approaches for many college students around the country, I can’t help but recall the late night study sessions of my own college years.  I remember spending countless hours memorizing biological processes for physiology class and reactions for organic chemistry.

I can recall very few of those academic details today, but I can probably remember the words to every pop music hit from my teen years.  This doesn’t seem intuitive: why are seemingly important facts often lost, while others (like the lyrics to “Bye, Bye, Bye”) are here to stay?

Why would memories of boy band songs from middle school take priority over academic material from college?

When we learn something new, the neurons in our brains make strong synaptic connections to ‘cement’ the memory.  But it can be difficult to get rid of strong old memory connections to make way for new ones, suggests a mouse study published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports and reported by the New York Times.   The researchers looked at two proteins important for forming connections in the brain, called NR2A and NR2B.  Compared to adult mice, young mice have higher levels of NR2B in the brain, while adult mice have increased levels of NR2A.  However, when the researchers induced young mice to produce more NR2A (making their brains more like those of adult mice), the young mice had trouble forming new connections and making new long-term memories at the expense of old ones.  So, according to this study, my older, college-aged brain may have had trouble learning the new material simply because teeny-bopper song lyrics were there first.

Oh no!  Since my brain is filled with 90s pop anthems, does that mean I’m running out of space for important new information?

Probably not, says Northwestern University professor Paul Reber for Scientific American.  The human brain holds about one billion neurons, which combine to make over one trillion connections, and each connection helps to store multiple memories.  All together, this means that the neurons in one human brain can hold about 2.5 petabytes of data – the equivalent of 300 years of continuous television recording on your DVR.  It might be difficult to permanently store the material learned in last week’s class, but limited available storage space is probably not the issue.

But why does my brain store song lyrics when I’m not even trying to remember them?

Even if you’re not trying, it seems that your mind sometimes wanders to a song by default, says an article last week at Business Insider.  When the lyrics and tune of a song get stuck on repeat in your head, this music often provides an escape for your wandering mind.  In an experiment with sodoku puzzles, researchers at Western Washington University found that college students who were given a difficult puzzle more often reported having a distracting song “stuck” in their heads.  But the mechanism by which we obtain these annoying earworms may have provided humans with an evolutionary advantage:  just as a memory or a conversation with a friend can remind us of song lyrics, our brains also look for patterns as a mechanism for solving problems, psychology researcher Ira Hyman said in the article.

Now students, stop reading this post and go study for your finals.  And if you do happen to remember song lyrics instead of your chemistry notes, perhaps now you can blame biology — not Justin Timberlake — for your grade.

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This entry was posted on May 2, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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