Peru, 1985: Joe Simpson, a 25-year-old mountaineer, slowly lugs himself down the Siula Grande mountain in the Andes, after becoming separated from his climbing partner during a near-fatal fall down a crevasse. He is delirious from hypothermia, dehydration and the pain of a badly broken leg, but one problem is tormenting him most–he can’t get Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring (ask your parents) out of his head.
Earworms, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), are defined as tunes that repeat themselves in your mind over a period of minutes, hours or even days. Women are thought to experience them more than men, as well as those who like to listen to and/or play music. For most, they are simply a part of life but for a small percentage of people–like Joe Simpson–they can be unpleasant and disturbing.
The Music, Mind and Body Group at Goldsmiths, University of London have been doing a lot of research into the causes and cures of INMI. They concluded that earworms are mostly contracted by exposure to music–especially live music or music videos–which would explain why they’re seen more in music players. However, non-musical stimuli also exist: such as low attention states like dreams, positive or negative emotions, or memory triggers.
The team have also managed to dissect earworms, and discover what makes them stick around in our heads. Compared to a control group of random songs, tunes that people claimed had been stuck in their heads tended to have longer notes, with smaller pitch intervals (e.g. a B note, followed by a B-sharp and a C). These songs are thought to be easier to tap, hum or sing along to, which means they’re activating more parts of your brain and are therefore more likely to be remembered–the chorus of ABBA’s hit, Waterloo is said to be a perfect example of this.
Joe Simpson’s earworm was probably triggered as a mechanism to cope with his stressful situation, or perhaps because he had a lot of free time to think whilst on that mountain. Something uncommon about his earworm though, was that it was a song he didn’t like. Most of us tend to find that our earworms are songs that we enjoy, and so they may have a purpose in combating negative mood.
It has been found that a lot of people respond to INMI by purposefully seeking out and listening to the sticky song. This makes sense as often only a few lines of the song make up an earworm, so people try to determine the surrounding lyrics/rhythm. This can even result in the earworm wriggling on out of your head, as an “unfinished” thought tends to remain in the working memory for longer than a resolved one.
However, this is definitely not the only way to “cure” an earworm. It is estimated that every day, 40% of your thoughts fall under the “spontaneous cognition” category, including earworms, meaning distracting or occupying your mind is the key. After all, if you don’t keep cognitively engaged, your brain will find its own work to do–even if that work is repeating the same two lines of Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk over and over again for the rest of the day.
In another survey conducted by the Music, Mind and Body Group, which compiled the INMI testimonies of thousands of British and Finnish people, most respondents said that when actively trying to remove an earworm, they would choose a musical distraction, such as listening to or playing different songs in hope of dislodging the original tune. Other people note using non-musical tactics, such as watching TV, reading or meditating–and it is these techniques that appear to be the most effective.
A second study, led by Dr Ira Hyman, found that the most effective methods of “curing” an earworm involved challenging puzzles like anagrams or Sudoku. But he was quick to point out that anything too difficult will lessen the efficiency, resulting in a “Goldilocks effect” – “it can’t be too easy and it can’t be too hard, it has got to be just right,” Dr. Hyman explains.
If your earworm still isn’t cured by the above methods though, hope remains. Researchers at the University of Reading have found that chewing gum can significantly reduce the recurrence of earworms. The study asked participants to listen to Maroon 5’s Payphone and then try not to think about the song afterwards. Volunteers were divided into groups, with some chewing gum, others tapping on the table, and the rest doing nothing at all. Every time the song popped into their heads they had to press a button, and those given the gum pressed their buttons much less than the tappers or the control group.
This research might be interesting, but it’s easy to perceive the study as a little bit pointless. Surprisingly though, the results could have some valuable uses; it is thought that the same techniques for curing earworms could be used by people suffering from anxiety and OCD, to eradicate intrusive thoughts.
So next time you just can’t Let it Go, try a crossword or a stick of gum, and take back control of your working memory! You can even contribute to a real scientific study on earworms by filling in this survey.