Earworm attack

The Asian Age.  | Dipti Mudaliar

Entertainment, Music

Do bits of songs often replay endlessly in your head? If yes, ‘earworm’ has invaded your mind.

In a study mentioned in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by researchers at the University of Reading in England, 98 volunteers listened to music that topped as potential earworm songs.

Does a tune often intrude your thoughts and plays and replays in a never-ending loop? For some it could be Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance while others may fall prey to Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Well, folks, you are suffering from ‘earworm’. Don’t get scared, it happens to 91 per cent of the people at least once a week.

What exactly is an ‘earworm’? Dr Sameer Malhotra, Director at Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket explains, “They are simply bits of songs (perhaps the chorus or a few lines) that get stuck in your head on an out of your control repeat mode. It seems funny but it is, in fact, a real psychological phenomenon, a type of cognition known as ‘Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI)’ and is similar to daydreaming. It may arise due to lowered levels of serotonin in the brain too. It is involuntary, and usually lasts not more than eight seconds, which means that the psychology behind the song stuck in your head is different than if you were consciously trying to sing the song mentally. Although puzzling and at times annoying, earworms are a relatively benign phenomenon.”

“Human brain,” Dr Subramaniam, a senior homeopath, explains, “is huge. And there are a lot of things that we can programme ourselves to do automatically, like driving or walking, which make you not use all of your cognitive resources. Hence, there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start humming. Also, one of the reasons that we get earworms in the first place is probably because music is an evolutionary adaptation, helping us to preserve factual and emotional information in an easily memorisable medium. ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and many nursery rhymes fit this bill as it helps children remember them.”

Explaining ways to dodge them, he further shares, “The key here is to find something that will give the right level of challenge to get cognitively engaged. By doing this, you limit the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head. However, it (task) can’t be too easy and it can’t be too hard, it has got to be just right because if you are trying to do something too hard then your brain will not be engaged successfully and the music will come back. You need to find that bit in the middle where there is not much space left in the brain. That will be different for each individual.”

Removing Earworm

Listen to the actual song all the way to the end. Yes, some people say that that’s the only way to achieve closure. Deal with it head on by singing it out loud as well — no matter how embarrassing the song. Distract yourself with a task by reading a good novel, solving a puzzle, cleaning or running a chore that requires attention. Performing puzzles such as Sudoku or anagrams help reduce the recurrence of the earworms. Imagine a different song to drown the first one. Chew gum. In a study mentioned in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by researchers at the University of Reading in England, 98 volunteers listened to music that topped as potential earworm songs. But those who chewed gum reported one-third fewer earworms — possibly because the action ties up the same mental pathways used in imagining music, the researchers surmised.

‘They are simply bits of songs (perhaps the chorus or a few lines) that get stuck in your head on an out of your control repeat mode. It seems funny but it is, in fact, a real psychological phenomenon, a type of cognition known as ‘Involuntary Musical Imagery’ and is similar to daydreaming’          -Dr Sameer Malhotra