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All My Memories, Gathered 'Round Her

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Twenty-five years ago, when I was a 19-year-old college sophomore at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, I met a woman named Barbara. She was living in a nursing home. Fifteen years prior, when she was my age, she was in a serious car crash that landed her in a coma for two and a half months and resulted in the loss of most memories. The 15 years following the accident had been spent relearning the world from the beginning, as a child would.

My role in Barbara's recovery was to spend an hour or so with her each week playing the guitar. When she was a college student she was an avid guitar player with a vast repertoire of country and folk tunes. So those were the songs we played together each week.

From time to time we'd stop playing and just talk. Certain songs seemed to trigger memories and emotions, but we had no idea which ones they would be. A line of a song might trigger recall of a long-ago guitar teacher or the shop where lessons were held. Sometimes a song triggered memories of another song, and I'd find the sheet music for the next week.

Once, playing a song reminded Barbara that in her youth, she was a meticulous perfectionist about her music which struck her as funny given her current circumstances. Week after week, we played music together. Barbara gained confidence and slowly regained memories and skills thought lost. I learned that I was a patient person -- the nurse told me so.

But as a young student of biology, I was also fascinated with Barbara's mind. In 1987, the field of neuroscience was primordial, compared to where we are today and where things are headed in the future. How memories are formed, stored, lost and retrieved was a mystery -- it still is, in many ways.

New neuroscience research is providing insights into music, emotions and nostalgia, how and when we form our deepest and most enduring connections to songs. It turns out that Barbara was at her peak at the time of her accident. I was at my peak during the time we spent together. John Denver's "Country Roads" still lights up my neurons.

All my memories, gathered 'round her
Miners' Lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye

John Shaughnessy wrote about our meetings in the Indianapolis Star in 1987:

After Nichols taught Daugherty a few chords, she began to remember certain things: the name of her first guitar teacher, the storefront where she received lessons.

In the weeks that followed, they played songs that included spiritual, folk and country western tunes -- the music that Daugherty loved. And each lesson seemed to evoke another memory.

And just as the memories began to grow, so did their friendship. When Nichols' parents visited DePauw recently, he took them to see Daugherty at the Shady Creek Health Care Facility.

I've never stopped wondering about Barbara's brain, the human brain, my brain.

Now I've turned my focus to how our brain interacts with the ocean, the single biggest feature of our blue planet. And what we've begun to learn is fascinating and potentially revolutionary.

The ocean seems to reduce stress for some people, in a way similar to meditation or calm contemplation. Some people are fully addicted to the ocean. For others it may help unlock memories and foment creativity.

I'd like to take Barbara to the ocean. Where we would play our guitars and sing. And remember some things about when we were young, together.