Conditioned Butterflies

In 1901, Ivan Pavlov conducted some of the first scientifically sound experiments in behavioral psychology, producing evidence for his theory of classical conditioning. He presented dogs with a juicy steak paired with a ringing bell. After a number of trials, the bell alone would induce the dog to slobber all over itself. Pavlov labeled this the conditioned response – a physical reaction to a stimulus that, without training, wouldn’t normally elicit it.

Your sense of touch, hearing, sight, and taste are all wired into your brain through nerves that first pass through filters that block useless information before it enters the amygdala, the region of the brain that is primarily responsible for managing memory and emotions. However, the olfactory nerve, which delivers the sensory information of smell to the brain, bypasses these sensory filters. All the environmental stimuli that arouse a particular emotion, then, are strongly associated to the odors that are directly processed in the same place. Think about it: you smell the cologne of the guy who dumped you in high school, and you are instantly sucker-punched in the gut with the forces of attraction you thought long dead. Those responses are conditioned, making us not so different from Pavlov’s drooling dogs.

These associations exist with other senses as well, just not as strongly. When I hear a certain song I associate with a discrete period of my life, I re-experience on a very physical level the feelings I had at that time. It’s not even correct to say I’m thrown back into that state of mind – it’s more that state of body. I can look back, using these specific songs as a sort of musical journal to document these visceral shifts.

What follows is an experiment in the functionality and aesthetics of the Spotify “Play” feature for WordPress blogs (re: post three weeks ago, I’ve come around to Spotify).

Freshman year of high school

This was my last year singing in the school showchoir. Now hearing the songs we performed bring me back to the night of shows and the contingent mix of excited anticipation and anxious dread.

Junior year

A particularly stressful period of blind, thrashing motion replete with testing and pre-college worries. It was also the period of the burning rages provoked by a long run on Accutane, combined with the stress of navigating a new social geometry after coming out. I’d take out the angry, aggressive energy in long runs, racing the sunset home on those crisp autumn nights, listening to this song.

Senior Year

My final year of high school marked the dark, depressing wait for college decisions. The close friends with whom I trained on the swim team graduated the year before, leaving me to a lonely year in the pool. In the dead of the winter, I was sick of swimming, sick of high school, and sick of home. Thinking back, my memories are saturated with a dull grey tone and the cold feeling of hollow expectancy.

Post-high school summer

I was happy with my relationships, my job, and the school to which I was headed in August. I played the “Torches” album on repeat in my car throughout the many warm, cloudless days and evenings spent playing around in downtown Detroit. The happy, innocent time called for a happy, innocent song.

Fall Semester

I heard this song for the first time at some point during Orientation and fell in love. Life was a furious, exciting blur. When I hear Dan Deacon now, I’m hit with the very particular butterflies that twisted through my stomach during my first month at school. I can’t isolate anything really remarkable that happened during that time, but the feeling during that period, I inhabited a magical, spectacular new universe, remains.


After the naïve and wonderful first few weeks at Amherst, things slowed down, the blur slowly focused into a less ideal reality. After a particularly painful Christmas vacation home, I came back to school for a busy, socially-affirming January, with this song at its center.

Spring Semester

Finally, I reached a point of inertia – life wasn’t a constant flurry of uncertainty. Things slowed down, and for the first time, I was happy with where I landed. I heard Ducky live at Hampshire’s Spring Concert (while y’all were at Luda) and listening to the NYU producer now evokes the mildly contented bliss of those early warm spring days.

These are by no means a list of my favorite songs, nor are they the tracks I enjoyed listening to the most at the time that I discovered them. Looking again at this list, I realize that if I were to be exposed to some of them for the first time now, I probably wouldn’t think much of them. But the visceral feelings imbued the music with an aesthetic that supersedes quality. The emotions the songs arouse are always welcome – I treasure them, which is why I try not to play them too often. They serve as a reminder that although there is no remembering why one was happy, there is no doubt that one was.