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The Science Behind the Endless Loop: Understanding and Conquering Earworms

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The Phenomenon of Earworms

Have you ever experienced a catchy tune that seems to play on repeat in your head? These persistent melodies, known as "earworms," affect up to 98% of people in the western world. While for some individuals these tunes are neutral or even enjoyable, a third of the population finds them to be bothersome and disruptive to their inner peace.

What Songs Become Earworms?

Not all songs have the same earworm potential. Music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski conducted a study to determine why certain tunes are more likely to get stuck in our heads. She found that catchy songs tend to be faster and simpler in melodic contour, making them easier to sing along. Additionally, these tunes often feature unique intervals between notes, helping them stand out from the rest. Some notable earworms that dominated the UK charts from 2010 to 2013 were Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," Kylie Minogue's ironically titled "Can't Get You Out Of My Head," and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Factors Predisposing to Earworms

For an earworm to solidify its presence in our minds, it relies on brain networks involved in perception, emotion, memory, and spontaneous thought. While hearing a song is the primary trigger, earworms can also emerge when we are feeling good, inattentive, nostalgic, or overwhelmed by stress. Furthermore, individuals with a musical background may be more susceptible to experiencing earworms. Certain personality traits like being obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, or open to new experiences may also increase one's likelihood of falling prey to these catchy tunes.

The Potential Benefits of Earworms

Interestingly, there is a unique characteristic of music that allows it to become an earworm. Unlike regular speech, music naturally incorporates repetition. Although repetitive speech is typically associated with immaturity or even mental instability, repetition in music can be pleasurable, especially when we recognize subtle variations with each repetition. This learning process may contribute to the positive aspects of earworms. Moreover, earworms represent a form of spontaneous mental activity, akin to mind-wandering, which benefits clear thinking and creativity.

When Earworms Become a Concern

While most earworms are harmless, benign occurrences, there are cases when they may be indicative of an underlying issue. Persistent earworms that last longer than 24 hours can sometimes accompany conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychotic syndromes, migraines, certain forms of epilepsy, or palinacousis—a condition where one continues to hear a sound long after it has ceased. If you experience prolonged earworms, it is advisable to consult a physician to determine whether there may be a more serious underlying cause.

Dealing with Earworms

If you find yourself wanting to rid yourself of an earworm, it is recommended to avoid actively trying to block or suppress the song. Paradoxically, such efforts can result in the opposite effect, with the brain persistently replaying the tune. Instead, it is better to passively accept the earworm's presence. Some individuals find success in distracting themselves with other activities or listening to specific cure tunes, such as Thomas Arne's "God Save The Queen" or Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon." In certain cases, hearing the complete song associated with the earworm may extinguish it entirely.

Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can also be helpful in managing earworms. Replacing negative thoughts like "These earworms indicate I am crazy" with the more rational belief that "It is normal to have earworms" can shift our perspective. Surprisingly, chewing gum has been found to interfere with the perception of the song playing in our heads, providing an unconventional method for alleviating earworms.

Concluding Thoughts

In most instances, earworms are harmless or even enjoyable, contributing to the brain's creative processes. However, if earworms persist for an extended period or are accompanied by other concerning symptoms, it is essential to seek medical attention. Your primary care physician can assist in resolving persistent earworms, allowing you to regain your peace of mind and usher in a sense of tranquility.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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