Beatles’ tunes aid memory recall

The world’s largest catalogue of Beatles-related recollections will be unveiled in Liverpool this week.

The 3,000 memories, from 69 nations, could help scientists better understand how music can help humans tap into the long forgotten events of their lives.

A link between positive feelings and music could explain why tunes trigger memories, suggests the UK-based team.

The study is ongoing, and people can add their Beatles-related memory by visiting

“For a long time people have noticed that music can help people remember events from their lives, [but] this is the first real data that shows this,” said Dr Catriona Morrison, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Leeds.

Preliminary results from the study, devised by Dr Morrison and her colleague Professor Martin Conway, are being presented to the British Association Science Festival.

Happy times

The research explores the vast repertoire of human autobiographical memories.

“[Autobiographical] memories are formed from the events of our lives; we need them in order to have a sense of self,” the Leeds-based team explained.

The researchers invited people to recount a memory that relates to the Beatles. Participants were told to think of the first thing that came to mind – a vivid memory relating to a particular album, song, news story or even a band member.

The study found that the recounted memories are almost always positive, that people remember particular episodes very vividly – sounds, smells and sights of the memory were often recounted.

“The memories were equally split between men and women, and came from all ages – the youngest was 17 and the eldest was 87,” Dr Conway told BBC News.

He explains that what he finds interesting is that there was no difference between men and women in terms of the sense of emotion that the memories evoked.

Dr Morrison explained that it was assumed that a failure to retrieve a memory was the result of that memory not being recorded properly in the first place. The fact that music cues long-forgotten events suggests the problem is not so much with storage as with retrieval, the researcher argued.

Whether certain types of music (or certain songs) can act as better aids for remembering the past remains unclear. But in a world where the UN predicts that by 2010, one in five people will be over 60, and failing memory is likely to become an important challenge for society, more rigorous research into the link between music and memory is much needed, says the team.

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Stroking reveals pleasure nerve

A new touch-sensitive nerve fibre responsible for the sense of pleasure experienced during stroking has been described at a UK conference today.

The nerves tap into a human’s reward pathways, and could help explain why we enjoy grooming and a good hug, a neuroscientist has explained.

His team used a stroking machine to reveal the optimal speed and pressure for the most enjoyable caress.

The research was presented at the British Association Science Festival.

Mothers stroke their children, monkeys groom group members, and we all enjoy a massage, but what is it about stroking and rubbing that we find so enjoyable?

“People groom because it feels good,” said Professor Francis McGlone, a cognitive neuroscientist at Unilever R&D, but went on to explain that little is known about how we experience the pleasure of touch.

In order to isolate the touch-sensitive nerves responsible for the pleasure experienced during stroking, Professor McGlone designed a “rotary tactile stimulator” – a high-tech stroking machine.

“We have built some very sophisticated equipment, so the stimulus [of stroking] is very repeatable.

“We stroke the skin [of the forearm, foreleg, and face] with a brush at different velocities, and then asked the volunteers to rate how they liked it,” he explained.

He also inserted microelectrodes through the skin, into a nerve, to record the neural signals running from the skin to the brain.

“It is like tapping a single phone-line and listening for the chatter that comes down that line,” he told the conference.

Feel-good chemicals

By comparing how the neural signals corresponded with how much the volunteers enjoyed the stroking, he was able to pin down people’s pleasure to one set of nerves called “C-fibres”.

He thinks that the stroking movements are activating C-fibres, which are wired into the rewards systems in the brain, causing the release of feel-good hormones.

Professor McGlone points out that these touch nerves are not responsible for the pleasure experienced from rubbing sexual organs, nor are they found in a person’s palms or soles.

“Experiencing pleasure when grappling with tools or walking, would make both task difficult to do with any accuracy,” he suggested.

The Liverpool-based researcher showed that stroking speeds of about 5cm per second, while applying 2g of pressure per square cm is optimal, and gave the volunteers most pleasure.

He explained that the pleasure messages are conveyed from the skin to the brain, by similar types of nerve fibres as those that transmit the sensation of pain.

“This is interesting as we often rub a pain to try to alleviate it,” he said.

This could explain why the pain experienced by people exposed to a painful thermal stimulus, lessens when the region of the stimulus is simultaneously stroked.

Stroking could be used to treat chronic pain, he suggests.

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