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Just when you thought the human brain couldn’t get any more amazing, another discovery comes along that proves you wrong.

This time it’s about how quickly your brain recognises a familiar song. According to experts from University College London’s Ear Institute, it takes as little as 100 – 300 milliseconds – which is fast, by anybody’s standards.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study involved a main group of five men and five women plus a control group. The researchers’ aim was to find out exactly how fast they could recognise familiar music, and to learn more about the processes in the brain that are involved. The five men and women provided five pieces of music each that they were very familiar with, then the researchers found a tune they didn’t know, but which was similar to one of their familiar tunes in tempo, melody etc. They were then played 100 random snippets of their familiar tunes as well as the unfamiliar one, each of which lasted less than a second. While they listened, they were monitored using electro-encephalography (EEG) imaging – which records electrical activity in the brain – and a technique that measures pupil diameter called pupillometry (this helped measure arousal).

At the end of the study, the researchers found that the participants recognised the tunes they were familiar with in 100 – 300 milliseconds. At the same time, the volunteers’ pupils dilated rapidly when they recognised their tunes, and their brains showed cortical activation, which the researchers explain is related to memory retrieval. Members of the control group – none of whom knew any of the music they were played – had no such reactions, the experts say.

“Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly,” says the study’s senior author, Professor Maria Chait. “These findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”

If you’ve ever listened to a favourite piece of music that you haven’t heard for years, you’ll know what she means.

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash