In the effort to supplement my income, I sign up for the occasional focus group here in NYC. These are not usually very stimulating affairs. In fact, I usually leave wondering if the incredibly banal experience is worth the 100-200 clams. But this last one felt more like an experiment in psychology and neuroscience - I thought Daniel Leviten was hiding somewhere behind a one way mirror.
The focus group was for a new, rock radio station. Over the course of four hours (split over two days), me and about 50 other subjects listened to 15-second snippets of over a thousand songs and subsequently rated them. As a musician and an avid music fan, I figured this would be interesting. I recognized roughly 90% of the songs I heard, and liked about 50%. The music ranged from Radiohead, Kings of Leon, and Pearl Jam to Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, and The Doors.
I can't imagine what my brain scan images under un fMRI machine would have looked like. I thought my amygdala was going to catch fire by the end. After last night's second session, I left there with a massive headache. I assume it was brought on by the intense emotional responses of each song I listened to.
It was like an exercise in emotional frame shifting - a new scene once every 15 seconds. An inadvertent reminder that emotion does not happen in a vacuum. There was a whole scene associated with every song that elicited images and feelings from memory. Sights, sounds, smells, people, places, objects, sex, childhood, anger, frustration, elation, depression, regret, euphoria. My brain felt like a hurricane - bounding around in the storm of one's memory is the closest thing we have to time travel, I felt like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five coming unstuck in time. A brief excerpt of my internal play:
(first song starts)Okay, my headache is coming back...I think you get the point.
Oh, I used to listen to that song in the car with my dad when I was five years old, felt safe and happy...
My mother loved this song and she used to play it on the piano in the living room, it was a meloncholy song, but I loved how she played it, she was such a good music-
Fast forward to 23 years od - breakup song, wish I wasn't hearing this right now, I'm sad and bitter and remembering her face, which I used to be attracted to, god, i hope i never have to see her again...
Ha, my brother used to attempt playing this song during his brief stint on the saxophone, sounded like he was killing a goose in his bedroom, shit I need to call him...
Sweet! - I used to listen to this on my yellow Sony Sports Walkman while I mowed the lawn when I was 15, screaming over the mower to sing along. I found out later my parents used to get a kick out of that image.
Oh shit, this is the song my friends and I used to listen to while driving around in my friend's black, Nissan 300ZX that he got from his uncle, right after our good friend died in a car accident - an odd combination of nostalgia, euphoria, devastating regret and sadness. I wonder how his parents are-
Back to 12 years old, this was playing during a 7th grade dance when I first french kissed Ornella Rullo, she had chinese food for dinner that night. I was wearing red pants for some reason. Man, that was a good first french kiss, we were only TWELVE-
Maybe I do like Tom Petty? This is from that cheese-y, tripped out Alice in Wonderland video where Alice looks like a blond Karen Carpenter, and there's that scene where her body is a cake, and the Mad Hatter is cutting himself and everyone else a piece. Ha ha...
(On a side note, upon re-watching the video below, I'm impressed with my memory's ability to remember that it was the Mad Hatter cutting the cake - haven't seen that video in at least 7-8 years...)