I am a loud and proud ‘90s kid. If you asked me to sing every single song on *NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached” album, I would undoubtedly slay it. But if you asked me about what I had for breakfast last week, I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell you.
I’m not alone in this struggle. It’s a common frustration that plagues humanity: Why on earth can we remember song lyrics from years ― or even decades ― past, but we can’t recall what happened recently?
The power of memory
It turns out we can blame our brain’s preferences, according to Stephen Rao, the director of Cleveland Clinic’s Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging.
Tasks we engage in every day may play a role in what stays in our mind or what goes, Rao explains. Our brains may not categorize routine activities like breakfast as a crucial thing to remember ― but, of course, music from our past certainly fits the bill.
“Motivation has a lot to do with memory,” Rao told The Huffington Post. “We have a lot of information that comes into our brain all the time, so we have to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not.”
But what about the things that we’re actually trying to memorize? It’s not that we don’t want to remember new information, Rao says ― anyone who has ever studied for any type of test or presentation would attest to that. Rather, some information may be less appealing or stimulating, which means the poetic lyrics of boy bands past have a stronger hold than our breakfast from the other morning or those new earnings reports we need to memorize.
“The more attractive something is to our attention, the more likely we are to remember it,” Rao said. “Song lyrics may be more meaningful.”
The emotional factor
We also have a psychological connection to music in general ― particularly when it comes to songs from our past.
Listening to a melody that’s attached to a memory activates our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that’s responsible for recalling personal relationships and all of those other warm-and-fuzzy moments, Slate reported. Additionally, music you heard from earlier decades likely came at a time when you were forming your sense of self. That makes those lyrics more likely to stick in your head for much longer.
Our brains also like repetition, particularly when it comes to music. (This likely isn’t a surprise to anyone who listened to Adele’s “Hello” a million times when it came out last fall.) We get attached to a piece of music, we listen to it repeatedly, then we remember it.
“Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next,” Elizabeth Margulis, author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, told Mic. “A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise. In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.”
When it comes down to it, “Bye, Bye, Bye” just takes precedence over other things in our minds thanks to a powerful combination of our brain’s memory function and our emotions. The processes are all connected.
Apologies to that great breakfast we probably had last week.