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Why a teenage dream’s so hard to beat

Why does the music we listened to as teenagers still sound better than anything we have encountered since then? That was the question asked by Mark Joseph Stern a writer for Slate Magazine in a recent, excellent article.

The answer is not simply nostalgia – or even that we have become less tolerant of new things as we get older. It appears that there are strong neurological reasons why the music we listen to in our youth is so imprinted on us for life.

Before we get onto the scientific stuff – there is the emotional side of being a teenager to consider. The period from the age of 12 to 22 is essentially when we discover who we really are as people.

If we think back to the music we used to listen to at that time, chances are that we had strong associations beyond the tracks themselves. In fact we wanted to associate ourselves with the artist, with what they stood for and with the other people we knew who also associated themselves with the same values. In other words, through the music we chose to listen to as youngsters, we made a decision as to which tribe we wanted to join.

Of course, thankfully, that tribe can change throughout those years – I personally started off with David Bowie but gradually integrated progressive Rock with Deep Purple tempered with the Eagles/Fleetwood Mac, for example Add the hormonal aspect of puberty to the mix and you have a heady brew of associations that does not appear to diminish in potency even as we reach middle age and beyond. First love, first heartbreak, first car, first drink, cigarette, joint, rows with parents, exam disasters – those years are full of angst and joy and our music was our soundtrack. It still all comes back to me when I hear Billy Joel sing, “Movin’ Out”and then I did!

The really interesting part of Stern’s article however, is where he analyses exactly what music does to the neurons in an adolescent brain. “The more we like a song, the more we get treated to neurochemical bliss, flooding our brains with some of the same neurotransmitters that cocaine chases after,” he writes. “Music lights these sparks of neural activity in everybody. But in young people, the spark turns into a fireworks show. Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good.”

So next time you are in the pub and a favourite track from your teens comes on the jukebox – enjoy the rush. The feelings that you had back then will be as vivid as ever to you and the smile on your face just as wide as before. Just be grateful that the average track is around three minutes long, because not many of us would want to go back to our teens for much longer than that!

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