Last Wednesday, I went to see Great Big Sea play*. Since then I’ve listened to pretty much nothing but, and I listen to music in the background for quite a lot of my daily routine.
Yet somehow, as I’ve sat here in my quiet apartment trying to think of what to write here, my brain has had “I’ve been waking up your neighbors barking up your tree” on infinite loop repeat. It’s roughly five seconds of an almost four-minute song, and I haven’t listened to Bon Jovi in weeks**. The worst part is that I actually know the rest of the song, but it just won’t play the whole thing.
I have an earworm.
The name earworm is a literal translation of the German ohrwurm***. James Kellaris, at the University of Cincinnati, characterized the earworm as a cognitive itch that our brain wants to scratch. Apparently women, musicians, and the anxious are most prone to earworms.
The music that is earworm-inducing tends to be repetitive, simple, and have what Kellaris calls an “incongruity,” something that sticks out, like a shifting time signature.
A 2005 study at Dartmouth found that the auditory cortex in your brain is responsible. If a song is played to you, the auditory cortex activates as you listen. If you’re familiar with the song, and the song is turned off, the auditory cortex will just keep going. The fake song-hearing appears to be your brain following the reverse of path of the what it would do were the song actually playing, though exactly why you catch the earworm no one knows.
According to a study by British researchers Philip Beaman and Tim Williams, the best way to make an earworm go away is to ignore it. I usually go with ‘sing other songs.’
*it was the greatest 2 hours and 49 minutes of my life.
***and is not related to the actual insect corn earworm… I hope.
[note: this post originally appeared on March 23, 2010 at Original Blog (see here for details)]