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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

I've been thinking about the phenomenon of Earworms lately... If you're not familiar with the term it does not refer to an exotic and horrifying parasite. It's actually a word used to describe the (personally annoying) situation where a song gets stuck in your head. 

The most recent example of this, for me, was after listening to a Radiolab episode and hearing a skipping-tune about a stunt pilot who died. 

 The tune itself comes on after about one minute of intro... it lasts only 10 seconds and consists of the following:


Lincoln Beachey thought it was a dream

To go up to heaven in a flying machine

The machine broke down

And down he fell

He thought he'd go to heaven, but he went to...

Repeat. Ad Nauseum.


It's short, simple and designed to be repeated. My person experience with Earworms is that the often conform to these characteristics... and in the instances when they do not I tend to extract a simple element from a more complex piece and end up repeating it. For instance I was at the theatre last night (oh yes, how cultured I am) watching Mary Poppins and after the show found myself whistling the melody to Chim Chim Cher-ee...

 However, I found this particular episode less invasive and annoying than the first Lincoln Beachey example. 

So I thought I'd do some research into the phenomena. It seems like an interesting topic because it kind of feels like something has gone wrong in our brains. Such sensations are fairly infrequent and the only example of a similiar feeling might be deja vu. It seems, however, that there is very little research into the area of Earworms.

The best publication I could find was published in 2010 and authored by Beaman and Williams. It does a reasonable job (so they claim) of summarizing all relevent lit to date and presents some of their own findings. 

Here are the key points:

- Earworms seem to be (theoretically) related to OCD, with some preliminary data linking the two more substantively.

- Earworms are relatively common but despite popular opinion are not generally considered annoying.

- Earworms are frequently musical and may be verbal (lyrical) or not.

- Earworms frequently loop a <30 seconds, but can be substantially longer in some individuals.

- There seems to be no (demonstrated) characteristic of what makes something likely to 'get stuck'. There is huge individual variation.

I think the reason most of us recall earworms as being annoying (if indeed that is the case) is because we recall the most annoying instances the most readily. Lincoln Beachey annoyed me for a good 20 or 30 minutes, but Chim Chim was relatively banal and unintrusive, perhaps even pleasant - I recall it simply because it happened recently (last night) where as Lincoln Beachey happened over a week ago but was really fracking annoying. 

It's not really a topic for now, but looking at 'cures' for Earworms falls under the Wegner's Theory of Ironic Mental Control. This is a pretty cool idea which follows that...

"...the need to consciously monitor a mental control process to determine its success is self-defeating when the goal of the control process is to remove an item from conscious awareness as the re-presentation of this goal necessarily reinstates the item in consciousness whenever the monitoring process is deployed."

- Beaman and Williams (2010)

Thinking about not thinking about something is not possible. Do not think of the pink elephant, do not think of a pink elephant, do not think of a pink elephant...

The paper by Beaman and Williams (2010) didn't really add much most people couldn't intuite from their personal experience. I maintain that the best way to cure an Earworm is to displace it with an equally annoying song. The Chicken Dance usually suffices.

Here's a 3-minute example of the Chicken Dance played on Piano According. This video includes instructions on how to perform the chicken dance. 

 Oh. Em. Eff. Gee. 

It seems I'm not the only one who thinking displacement might work. Here's a site that claim to cure it by that very method. When you load the site it plays you an annoying song. A few examples include - The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Ace Of Base vs Lady Gaga, Rebecca Black - Friday, The White Stripes - We're Going to be Friends, and the most disturbing of all A Nirvana / Rick Astely mashup. 

 I can't help but think it could be displaced through some conscious processesing. Perhaps it might help to actually write out the words/lyrics when they're stuck. Perhaps 'moving' them into a more conscious form of processing might give you a bit more control - but that really is just a guess. 

Besides that I'm afraid I'm disappointed with what research has been done. What has been done seems very preliminary and I'd love to see some kind of factor analysis that identifies qualities that seem to be associated with brain-stickiness, I'd love to know if it's cross-cultural and what cultural influences it has (I suspect it is, given that many other cultures have specific words for it), if it can be experimental induced and extinguished, and what kind of environmental-personal interactions (if any) are present during the phenomenon. 

Oh well, if nothing else, I hope I've impregnated your brain with something tedious...



Bibliography Halpern, A., & Bartlett, J. (2011). The Persistence of Musical Memories: A Descriptive Study of Earworms Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28 (4), 425-432 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.28.4.425 Beaman, C., & Williams, T. (2010). Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts British Journal of Psychology, 101 (4), 637-653 DOI: 10.1348/000712609X479636



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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Ugh, now I can't get that crap out of my head.  Thanks buddy.

Dub C Med School
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I almost clicked the videos. Almost. And thought better of it.

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