Hello dear reader
This week I begin my new job as a postdoctoral fellow on a 3 year project investigating the earworm phenomenon. I am sure my readers are well aware by now, an earworm refers to the experience of having a tune or a part of a tune stuck in your head.
To kick off the project I thought I would reproduce for you an interview that I recently completed for the Spanish popular science magazine Redes para la Ciencia. The author of the article is Octavi Planells and this interview is reprinted with her permission.
If you would like a PDF copy of the Spanish language article then just drop a comment at the end with your email.
All the best for a productive week ahead
- What happens in our brain when a song is stuck in it? Why does it happen?
A very good question, the simple answer is we don’t know yet. There have been no brain imaging studies of earworms mostly because we are not yet sure how to capture the phenomenon in a lab. You can’t really put someone in a scanner and just hope that an earworm comes along! We do know however that the parts of the brain that are active when we sing are also active when we only think about singing or imagine a tune on purpose. My prediction would be that similar areas of the brain will be active when we get an earworm.
2. Some authors say earworms arise as a kind of “cognitive itch” that can only be scratched by repeating the song. What do you think about this?
I am collecting stories of earworm ‘treatments’ or ‘cures’ at the moment – the tricks that people use to try and expunge them. Repeating the song is one common tactic. But there has been no studies looking at the success of individual strategies. I think the word ‘itch’ is misleading in a sense, as it implies that paying attention to the earworm and ‘scratching’ it will fix it, which is often untrue. And also, it implies that earworms are annoying. In fact, only about 1/3 of earworm episodes are disturbing for people.
3. Sometimes, our memory is involuntary, spontaneous. Does it provide any advantage? Is there any explanation for these unconscious thoughts from an evolutionary point of view?
There are many possible explanations. One of my favourites is from Dortha Berntsen, who has suggested that involuntary memory may act as a tool that takes us back to moments of our lives in order that we might learn from them. A kind of back-up for our conscious will over memory, to make sure that valuable life experiences are not forgotten. However, it is just as possible that spontaneous memories are a consequence of the way our memory works (i.e. the majority of processing is subconscious) but that they serve no purpose of their own.
4. Music seems to be more powerful than words: mentally, one sings a tune without being conscious of it, yet it usually does not happen, for example, with a poem or with a slogan. Why music is catchier than language?
I have thought about this issue many times. My current reasoning for this finding is that music is more deeply encoded than words. Music activates mutiple brain areas (usually more than simply hearing words) and can activate some of the deepest reward centres. And if something has more connections in the mind then it is more likely that it will be re-activiated compared to something with fewer connections.
You must not make the mistake however, of thinking that everyone experiences the world in the same way as you – some people do experience repeating slogans, jokes or rhyming phrases. I call them “word worms”, informally. But it is true that this is less common than musical earworms (Liiikkanen, 2012).
5. What makes a song catchy? Is the effect the same for all the people?
Again, we do not know, yet. But it is true to say that the earworms that we have collected are highly idiosyncratic. When we had a thousand songs in our database, only a handful were mentioned more than once and none of them were mentioned more than about 5-6 times. My instinct is that just about any song can get stuck in the right circumstances. But some characteristics may lead to a higher likelyhood of sticking. Future research will tell us what these factors may be.
6. Some earworms seem to be more persistent than others. Why?
It is likely to be a combination of many factors. In our paper we identified emotional and physical states, as well as level of attention and the situational factors that may all influence the timing, persistence and effect of an individual earworm episode. And a new paper that we have just completed (in review) identifies personality and life experience factors that may influence persistence of earworms.
7. Why are the studies in this field interesting? What do them add to the general knowledge of our brain and psychology?
I am interested in earworms because I am fascinated by memory. I hope that by learning about earworms we can understand more about: 1) how our involuntary memory systems work in both positive (creativity) and negative (rummination and PTSD) ways; and 2) how we can learn to use memory more effectively, for example using music to help children learn more effotlessly or aid those who are suffering from memory problems.
8. How can I remove an earworm from my mind? Is it possible?
I have a long list of potential strategies that people have sent me over the past 2 years. I hope to explore the patterns within them and to uncover the most commonly cited ‘helpful’ techniques. It may never be possible to completely surpress our involuntary memories, and it may not serve us well to do so. But my easiest tip for now is to listen to some different music. Personally, I find it very hard to think about music when I can hear it playing at the same time.