It’s often said the sense of smell is most closely connected to long-term memory. The news offers little comfort to us forgetful people with a diminished sense of smell. But increasingly, neuroscientists are discovering how sound can also tap directly into our deepest memories. Patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia seem to come alive, becoming their old selves when they hear music they recognize, especially if they were musicians or dancers in a former life.
“Sound is evolutionarily ancient,” Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, tells NPR. “It is deeply, deeply rooted in our nervous system. So the memories that we make, the sound-to-meaning connections that we have and that we’ve made throughout our lives are always there. And it’s a matter of being able to access them.” The earworms we find ourselves humming all day; the songs we never forget how to sing… these are keys to a storehouse of memory.
Stories documenting dementia patients in the presence of music usually focus, understandably, on those who have lost brain function due to old age. In “Don’t Think Twice,” the short documentary above, we meet John Fudge, who sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell from the white cliffs of Dover and split his head open at 24 years old. “The extent of his injuries weren’t revealed,” writes Aeon, “until decades later, when doctors decided to perform a brain scan after John slipped into a deep depression.”
He was found to have extensive brain damage, “including a progressive form of dementia” called Semantic Dementia that leaves sufferers aware of their deterioration while being unable to express themselves. John’s wife Geraldine “compares his brain to an oak tree, its limbs of knowledge being slowly trimmed away, causing John great mental anguish.” In the short film, however, we see how “his musical abilities” are one “as-yet untrimmed branch.”
John himself explains how he “nearly died three times” and Geraldine assists with her observations of his experience. “It’s all there,” she says, “it’s just bits of it have sort of been blanked out…. Over the years, John’s semantic understanding of the world will deteriorate.” When a young volunteer named Jon from the Hackney Befriending Service stops by, the gloom lifts as John engages his old passion for playing songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Follow the moving story of how John and Jon became fast friends and excellent harmonizers and see more inspiring stories of how music can change Alzheimer’s and dementia patients’ lives for the better at the links below.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness