Brain matters | I just can’t get you out of my head


The upcoming carnival season poses a significant threat to all. No, I do not allude to drunk Dutch or sexually repressed men dressed up as clowns, waddling around in an awkward polonaise. Instead, we are at risk of being ‘attacked’ by an ‘earworm’. This phenomenon, also known as involuntary musical imagery, concerns the ongoing repetition of one or more lines of music, stuck in one’s head.

Earworms are especially ‘out and about’ during the carnival season, looking for an appetizing auditory cortex. Staying at home thus seems to be a reasonable option to ward off the little insects, although one can also become infected in other ways, to an extent that you utter: I just can’t get you out of my head. Indeed, reading a text can induce an earworm, whilst also serving as a remedy if you already suffer from one… heeeeeey Macarena!

Anyway, what can provoke an earworm? Science still investigates the phenomenon, but it seems to depend on the music available at hand, the person itself and specifically that person’s working memory. For instance, we are especially prone to simple melodies that contain a rather unusual rhythm. Just think of non-Western songs, such as oppa Gangnam Style. Sorry about that, by the way.

Picking up one of these little buggers does not solely depend on the song. It appears that 95 percent of people are susceptible to an earworm, depending on age, neuroticism, gender and musicality -young, emotionally unstable, feminine musicians seem to be especially at risk when listening to I just can’t get enough. In addition, an earworm is also related to mental control, such as one’s ability to visualize imagery.

This mental control can also serve as a remedy to an earworm. Deep thought and mental imagery can take up one’s working memory in an attempt to drive away unwanted thoughts and songs. In a similar fashion, a recent study suggested that chewing gum also helps to get rid of an earworm, as moving one’s jaw distorts cognitive and perceptual processes.

Perhaps this is the only ‘sound’ advice that I can provide. If you really must go and celebrate carnival, which you should as part of your cultural exploration, please bring a pack of chewing gum - for your own sanity, as well as that of your one-night stand.

Alain Starke is a PhD student at Human-Technology Interaction

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