The latest animated Pixar movie “Coco” follows the journey of a boy named Miguel and his adventure through the Land of the Dead. In his journey he meets a dead man who wants his daughter to remember him.
The only problem is that the dead man’s daughter is elderly and suffers from dementia, making her unable to remember her father let alone the living members of her family around her. Upon returning from his adventure Miguel plays a song that the dead father wrote and it revives the memory of the elderly daughter.
While the degree and speed of this recovery is unrealistic, it hints at some truth regarding dementia and musical memories. Dementia affects over 47 million people around the world and is a severely traumatic experience for many families. Experts have discovered evidence that musical experiences are sometimes spared the degenerative effects of dementia.
There is debate in the medical community about how much music has the ability to treat victims of dementia. While it is commonly agreed that music can cue memory of experiences, it is less evident that it is able to bring back particular details of those experiences.
Studies into the effects of music on dementia sufferers have had mixed results but this could partly be because of flaws in methodology. For example some studies require subjects to name a song after hearing it and while they can follow the tune or remember lyrics the exact title of the song still escapes them.
There are also different kinds of music related memories. The ability for someone with dementia to remember an event or concert can be different from their memory of how to sing a song or play an instrument.
In the case of the Pixar film it is plausible that the performance of a certain song could bring back powerful memories of performing it with a parent. It is less likely that it would beat back the effects of degenerating brain tissue that causes the more widespread loss of memory.
Coco is definitely not a film grounded in scientific plausibility and it’s not trying to be. What the film does right is demonstrate the potential power of music on human memory. Even though the plot of the film exaggerates the recovery possible, it highlights this power nevertheless.
This part of the film speaks as part of a broader message about dementia sufferers, where they can approach the end of their lives with dignity and surrounded by loved ones.