I recently learned that the temporal lobe, the region of the brain that processes sounds, is also responsible for registering visual information and certain types of memory. Given the profound effect one song can have over your senses, this anatomical proximity is not the least bit surprising. As a real-life example, we’ve all had the experience of a song transporting us to another time and place.
Today, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Provincetown, attempting to study neural pathways, when Postal Service’s Such Great Heights started playing on the radio. The rhythmic bass and techno-bleeps ricochet across my cranium, overwhelming my senses. I was brought back to the summer after senior year of high school, a summer spent in Cape Cod before starting my freshman year at Dartmouth.
To the tune of Ben Gibbard’s sweet choir-boy vocals, I vividly remember driving around the piers of Wellfleet with my best friend Alanna in her red mustang convertible. I can breathe in the marshy smell of the bay, feel the sea breeze rustling my hair.
I am thinking it’s a sign, that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images and when we kissed they’re perfectly aligned.
I felt a visceral ache at this line, remembering the feeling of being in love for the first time- the vulnerability, the newness of everything. The imminent possibility of getting your heart broken.
And then the chorus: They won’t see us waving from such great heights. This line felt like it was written specifically for Alanna and me that summer. The ember of her cigarette glowing firefly-like as we sped over marshland. We were at great heights, about to embark on our inevitably successful adulthood lives at our respective reputable institutions. We felt invincible, sprinting down the dunes with flares of white sand erupting behind us.
Come down now, but we’ll stay. But we were still kids after all, and we needed our years of recklessness, hazy neon-streaming nights, mornings of regret. There was this whole mysterious world waiting for us, if we could get there fast enough.
Alanna and I lost touch soon after that summer. It wasn’t any one’s fault really, Alanna’s mother picked up and moved to Florida to escape an ugly divorce, and Alanna was forced to tag along. She had spun out of control at college and it took her some time to get back on her feet. She called me several years ago to apologize for too many drunken nights, some angry words exchanged in high school, things I had long forgotten about. We reminisced briefly about the “Stanger,” as we affectionately deemed her Mustang, about our nights driving around Wellfleet piers. Then we hung up. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the purpose of the call. She had just completed Alcoholics Anonymous and that phone call had been her making amends. But everything looks perfect from far away, come down now.
I hear Such Great Heights and I feel the frothy Cape Cod water lapping at my toes, this vast turbulent blackness in front of us. And then MGMT’s Kids is my senior year of college, thick hookah smoke, patterned tapestries draped over Jake-the-Philosophy-major’s bed, the two of us slowly regaining a timid grasp over reality as the shrooms begin to wear off. Death Cab for Cutie’s We Looked Like Giants is sophomore year of college, the loneliness of driving along starlit Vermont roads in the wintertime, Pinback’s Good to Sea is carelessly riding bikes through the Botanical Gardens in the summertime.
With each of these songs, a pulse of neurotransmitters is propelled along my temporal lobe and throughout the limbic system, evoking a distinct memory and flood of emotion. Evolutionary biologists would suggest that Mother Nature had designed us this way intentionally. These neural pathways allow us to make a split-second association between a predatory call and danger; or to distinguish the cry of another baby from our own. (You may have witnessed this phenomena along with a mother at Whole Foods; while a stranger kids’ crying might annoy her, her own offspring will kick her maternal instinct into full gear at ninja speed.) Like much of our anatomical designs, the interconnectedness between our sound processing and our emotional-memory brain regions is a survival mechanism. But I doubt Mother Nature would have intended for a tenor voice and some techno rhythmics to make your heart jump into your throat, or that a few twangy strings of a guitar could make your hips start mysteriously gyrating on their own.
On long family road trips, my Dad insists on listening to same half dozen artists- Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Grateful Dead. And despite our persistent groans from the backseat (“Can’t we just listen to Jack Johnson again, pulease?”), he doesn’t hear us at all, in fact, we don’t even exist to him. Because to him, it’s 1969 and instead of a Prius he’s riding a motorcycle. He’s wearing his favorite distressed leather jacket, and perhaps driving too fast and careening too sharply around turns because he’s young and he’s reckless like we had been too.