Stuck on Replay
Think back to last night when you were doing your dishes or unloading your car and that song popped back into your head, yet again. Or earlier today, walking down the corridors of your office building humming a song you didn’t even know you knew. But, alas, here you are, your steps bumpin' to the beat as you walk and that song in your head plays on repeat, over and over and over.
Well, you are not alone! This isn’t just an experience exclusive to you and SpongeBob, obviously. About 97 percent of people will experience this phenomenon. (The research on Sea Sponges is yet to be completed.) So what’s the culprit? Why must we suffer from earworms or as the Germans dubbed them, ohrwurm?
Until recently, not much was known about this musical contagion. Psychologists and musicians found that certain personality traits, neuroticism for example, influence the number of times a spontaneous earworm gets stuck in a person’s head. In addition, women and music lovers experience this phenomenon more than men and those who are musically apathetic. According to a 2011 paper from University of London, earworms are nothing but Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI). INMI is usually triggered by three factors:
1. Recent exposure to music -- With the advent of headphones and iPods, music is more accessible than ever. We hear the same songs on the radio and can listen to whatever music we like, as many times as we’d like. This repetition can influence how our brain regions, often associated with external stimuli involuntarily, recall songs we have heard more frequently.
2. Low attention jobs -- Activities that require little to no attention like brushing your teeth or folding laundry are more conducive to INMI because these jobs allow your mind to wander.
3. Involuntary memory retrieval -- Most of us go through our days feeling a myriad of emotions -- sad to happy to miserable to neutral. These varying emotions create context-dependent musical memories, causing us to remember ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ when at a party or ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ after a heartbreak.
So how do you turn it off that incessant earworm? Well, that’s a tough question, but the ironic process theory might be a potential solution. The ironic process theory is the idea that if you try to suppress a thought it will come back more frequently than if you just let it come naturally. So when ‘Baby One More Time’ comes popping up again, don’t suppress that fragment of music or it will only create a cycle of repetition that is hard to break. With some patience and a little distraction, soon enough, it’ll wiggle out in no time.
P.S. A gift for all you melophiles (lovers of music):