The Speed of Our Mental Soundtracks: Tracking the Tempo of Involuntary Musical Imagery in Everyday Life

By Jakubowski, Kelly; Farrugia, Nicolas et al. | Memory & Cognition, November 2015 | Go to article overview

The Speed of Our Mental Soundtracks: Tracking the Tempo of Involuntary Musical Imagery in Everyday Life


Jakubowski, Kelly, Farrugia, Nicolas, Halpern, Andrea R., Sankarpandi, Sathish K., Stewart, Lauren, Memory & Cognition


Published online: 30 June 2015

# The Author(s) 2015. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com

Abstract The study of spontaneous and everyday cognitions is an area of rapidly growing interest. One of the most ubiquitous forms of spontaneous cognition is involuntary musical imagery (INMI), the involuntarily retrieved and repetitive mental replay of music. The present study introduced a novel method for capturing temporal features of INMI within a naturalistic setting. This method allowed for the investigation of two questions of interest to INMI researchers in a more objective way than previously possible, concerning (1) the precision of memory representations within INMI and (2) the interactions between INMI and concurrent affective state. Over the course of 4 days, INMI tempo was measured by asking participants to tap to the beat of their INMI with a wrist-worn accelerometer. Participants documented additional details regarding their INMI in a diary. Overall, the tempo of music within INMI was recalled from long-term memory in a highly veridical form, although with a regression to the mean for recalled tempo that parallels previous findings on voluntary musical imagery. A significant positive relationship was found between INMI tempo and subjective arousal, suggesting that INMI interacts with concurrent mood in a similar manner to perceived music. The results suggest several parallels between INMI and voluntary imagery, music perceptual processes, and other types of involuntary memories.

Keywords Music cognition . Imagery . Involuntary musical imagery . Involuntary memory . Spontaneous cognition . Tempo

Empirical investigations of both non-volitional cognition and everyday thought processes have historically been neglected, due in part to the difficulty of harnessing these mental activities within a laboratory setting (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006, 2015). However, these mental processes comprise a substantial proportion of human cognition (McVay, Kane, & Kwapil, 2009) and provide an avenue for highly ecological research that can complement and extend traditional laboratory-based approaches. In recent years, the implementation of novel research designshasallowedresearcherstobegintogainanunderstanding of spontaneous and naturalistic cognitions, including involuntary memories (e.g., Berntsen, Staugaard, & Sørensen, 2013), mind wandering (e.g., Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010), and everyday thoughts within naturalistic settings (e.g., Hektner, Schmidt, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2006). The present study aims to further advance this area of research by introducing a new method for studying a type of everyday cognition related to music.

Involuntary musical imagery (INMI, or Bearworms^)isthe experience of a section of music coming into one'smindinvoluntarily - without any intention to retrieve or recall the music - that immediately repeats at least once, without conscious effort to replay the music. Thus, INMI is characterized by two primary features: (1) it is recalled via associative and unplanned retrieval mechanisms, and (2) it is involuntarily repetitive in nature. These two characteristics serve to distinguish INMI from other related musical cognitions such as voluntary musical imagery, which is imagined music that is strategically retrieved (e.g., Zatorre & Halpern, 2005), musical Bmind pops,^ which comprise brief, single spontaneous appearances of a tune in the mind without repetition (e.g., Kvavilashvili & Anthony, 2012), and musical hallucinations, which are mental representations of musical sounds that are misattributed as originating from the external environment (e.g., Griffiths, 2000). The unplanned nature of retrieval from memory that is implicated in INMI also suggests some parallels between INMI and other types of involuntary memories. Indeed, INMI has been classified by some researchers as a type of involuntary semantic memory (Kvavilashvili & Mandler, 2004). …

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