By Hannah Simon
The temporal lobe, a shriveled pickle of cortical tissue nested on either side of our skull,derives its name from the Italian word “tempora” for sound. Classically, we think of the temporal lobe as the auditory processing region of the brain. But this is a vast oversimplification. The temporal lobe is also responsible for processing language, certain emotions, and memory. And given the profound effect one song can have over your sensory experience, this anatomical proximity is not the least bit surprising. Haven’t we all had the experience of a familiar song transporting us to another time and place?
For me, that song is Postal Service’s Such Great Heights. I could be in a coffee shop or deep in dissection in the anatomy lab, and suddenly I experience a vivid déjà vu. The rhythmic bass and intermittent techno-bleeps bounce against my cranium, overwhelming my senses. I am brought back to the summer of senior year of high school, a summer spent in Cape Cod before heading off to college.
To the tune of Ben Gibbard’s sweet choir-boy vocals, I remember driving around the piers of Wellfleet with my best friend Anne in her red mustang convertible. I can breathe in the marshy smell of the bay, feel the sea breeze rustling my hair
The chorus: They won’t see us waving from such great heights. This song felt like it was written for Anne and me that summer. We were at great heights, about to embark on our successful adulthood lives at our respective reputable institutions. We felt invincible, the ember of her cigarette glowing as we sped over marshland, white sand erupting behind us as we careen down the dunes.
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 just get there fast enough.
Anne and I fell out of touch soon after that summer. It wasn’t any one’s fault really. Her mother picked up and moved to Florida to escape an ugly divorce, and Anne tagged along. She had spun out of control a bit 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 had 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 finished 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 me.
Death Cab for Cutie’s We Looked Like Giants is sophomore year of college, the loneliness of driving along starlit Vermont roads in the winter. And Pinback’s Good to Sea is carelessly riding bikes past orchid gardens in the summertime.
And then MGMT’s Kids is senior year of college, thick hookah smoke billowing over the tapestried-walls of Jake-the-Philosophy-major’s room.
With each of these songs, a pulse of neurotransmitters is propelled along my temporal lobe to the nearby 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. Like many of our anatomical structures, the interconnectedness between our auditory and our memory brain regions is a survival mechanism. But I doubt Mother Nature would have intended for a tenor voice and some techno rhythm 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, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Grateful Dead. And despite our persistent groans from the backseat (“Can’t we just listen to Dave Matthews Band again, pullease?”), he doesn’t hear us. In fact, we don’t even exist to him. Because to him, it’s 1972 and instead of a Prius he’s riding a motorcycle. He’s wearing his favorite distressed leather jacket, and driving too fast and careening too sharply around turns because he’s young and he’s reckless like we had been too.