How a decades-long hunt for a song led to a quick lesson in human memory

Matt Gurney set out to find the name of the song stuck in his head, and along the way he learned a lot about how memory works. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

Human memory is a fickle thing. This week, I got to find out just how fickle.

One of the advantages of my job, both as a writer and a broadcaster, is access to smart people. It’s not at all weird for an expert in some field or another to get an email from someone like me, or a producer, asking for some of their time and expertise in an interview. Most of the time, I limit my requests to things that are of news interest. Every so often, I like to indulge my own curiosity. Like I did this week.

Let me set the stage for you. When I was about six years old, my dad bought a compact disc player. This was cutting-edge technology at the time. It was a big, bulky thing, and it wasn’t fancy. No multi-task functionality or anything like that. It played a CD, and (arguably) provided better audio quality than the vinyl records he owned (and that I had a bad habit of scratching). My dad began replacing some of his records with CDs. This was expensive, so he bought a few at a time.

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And sometime during this process, a song got stuck in my head. And it stayed stuck there for three decades.

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I normally have a good memory. I can recall phone numbers and addresses of people whom I haven’t spoken to in years, or lines of dialogue from TV shows and movies. Not being able to remember things drives me around the bend. And this was maddening because I could remember the tune of the song. I remembered a man singing, I could hum the melody of it, and I recalled the singing ended with distinctive piano playing. I recalled playing the song on that new-fangled CD player. But I could never, ever wrack my brain enough to bring me any details.

Not a title for the song, not a band or a singer, not enough of the lyrics to Google my way to an answer. Every few months, the damned tune would come into my mind again, and I’d spend a day muttering about it under my breath. I’d come to accept that I’d never figure it out.

LISTEN: Psychologist Steve Joordens joins the Exchange with Matt Gurney
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But something weird happened. A few months ago, a tiny bit of a chorus came back to me, or so I thought. It was a small snatch of the lyrics: “breaking us in two.” That’s it. After 30 years of effort, that’s all my brain was able to come up with. I Googled around a bit, and found a song that I thought might be the culprit — Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two,” off his 1982 album Night and Day. I looked up the song and listened to it online. To my immense frustration, it wasn’t the right one at all.

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But my brain was itching. I felt that I was this close to cracking this mystery. I somehow knew that I hadn’t quite struck out with “Breaking Us in Two.” I was trying to find other songs that had that lyric in it. No luck. On Friday, while driving in my car, humming the damned mystery melody, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I was approaching it the wrong way. Maybe I wasn’t remembering the lyric from that song, but another song I heard a lot at the same time.

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Could my mystery song be off the same record? Could my brain have reached for memories of the mystery song, but grabbed another one off the album?

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You might laugh at this, but I pulled over right away — right at the side of a busy Toronto street. I put my four-way flashers on and pulled up a playlist that had that entire album. And I knew this was it. As soon as I saw the album cover, I remembered it. I had finally cracked the mystery, I was certain of it.

I began listening to all the songs, and sure enough, there was my mystery song. Track five: “Steppin’ Out.” And it was exactly as I’d remembered it.

I confess to being disappointed. Partially because I kind of enjoyed the mystery, as irritating as it could be, and partially because “Steppin’ Out,” while a fine tune, wasn’t quite worth a 30-year wait. But the entire affair had made me intensely curious. What the hell was going on in my brain? What was up with this whole 30-year process?

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I tasked my producer with finding me a memory expert. He got to work and found Steve Joordens, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. Joordens hit it out of the park. My little story was exactly up his alley. He came on my show and explained that human memory is largely broken into two categories: “procedural” and “recollection” memory. Procedural memory is what we’re referring to when we talk about “muscle memory” — the body learns to reliably repeat tasks that it has learned (riding a bike is the classic example). But recollection memory is identifying information such as names, addresses, numbers, and the like.

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To demonstrate this simply, imagine someone teaches you a task. You’ll remember the task (procedural memory) a lot longer than you’ll remember the name of the person who taught it to you (recollection memory).

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So what had happened to me (and I’m sure basically everyone else out there with a similar experience) is that six-year-old Matt had probably been humming “Steppin’ Out” a lot. It’s a catchy tune; the piano parts, in particular, are earworms. So my humming the tune became imprinted on my long-lasting procedural memory. My body remembered how to do that. But the recollection memory part of my brain, which has to absorb massive amounts of new information every day, either didn’t recall or didn’t keep the name of the song, the singer or what the album cover looked like. If I remembered it at all, it was long ago bumped aside for something more recent and pressing.

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Joordens even put my mind at ease. I told him that the song had haunted me, the effort to recall it a years-long frustration, and he assured me that that was entirely normal. He says in my case, since I had a strong memory of the song in one part of my memory but not in the other, my frustration and constant efforts to recall the song were the routine, predictable result of my brain realizing there was a gap in my memory. The brain is a pattern-matching machine, he told me, and it hates missing pieces. It tries to fill them in whenever possible, and doesn’t always do it accurately (this is why eyewitness testimony is, contrary to popular belief, notoriously unreliable). In my case, the inability to fill a missing piece of a memory became something I couldn’t stop thinking about because my brain was itself troubled by the gap.

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It was a fascinating discussion. And a reasonable answer to a long-standing question. If you’ve ever had a tune stuck in your head, even though you can’t remember where it’s from, that’s why — you probably hummed it or tapped it out a thousand times, even if you only spoke the title aloud a handful.

This isn’t the most pressing issue in the world today. But it’s a fun one. As summer draws to an end and we all get back into our normal routines, it’s fun to spend a bit of time learning about the few square inches inside our skull that make us who we are.

Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

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