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Earworms Dig In

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-33-04-amThe wheels on the bus go round and round. Round and round. Round and round. STOP! I want off this bus! This silly song won’t go away. Like wheels, it goes round and round in my brain.

Call it an earworm or a brain worm. It’s defined as a catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind, or more scientifically, it’s involuntary musical imagery (INMI). Sometimes an earworm attacks long after we’ve heard a song and often it’s an annoying ditty that we’d never choose to remember. It is probably not even a favorite song. The Wheels on the Bus is certainly not worthy of being my favorite and I don’t want to hear it over and over.

Why does this song get stuck in my brain? And how can it get it unstuck? Although psychologists and brain researchers have studied earworms, what triggers them and why they occur remain mysteries. Mainly because earworms, which supposedly last only a few seconds, are involuntary and that makes tracking them in a scientific setting almost impossible.

It’s believed there are groups of people who are more likely to experience earworms: those constantly exposed to music, those who are exposed to the same song multiple times during a short period, those with obsessive-compulsive behavior, and those who express strong emotions. So I expect that my friend who teaches school music classes and sings the same songs during school hours will hear those tunes long after 3:00 p.m. And it makes sense that people who try to do everything right would strive to hear a song perfectly and repeat its lyrics many times.

Brain researchers suggest that the size and shape of one’s brain might be a factor. Earworm frequency depends upon the thickness of brain regions and are more common in people with thick brains in the areas associated with musical memory and auditory reception. (Side note: did you know it’s been proven that the smartest people have the thickest brains?)

So I can’t determine exactly why the Wheels on the Bus gets stuck in my head, it just does. Are there ways to prevent it? I could quit music, cold turkey. No radio. No Pandora. No singing with the Grands. No concerts. But I’m not giving up music.

However, I discovered many suggestions to stop an earworm. Sing the entire song, every word, every note, every stanza – wear the song out. Or listen to other music. Or sing a different song – either aloud or in your head and hope it doesn’t get stuck. Or distract your brain by engaging in a language activity: work a crossword puzzle, play Scrabble, write a poem, or simply talk to someone.

My favorite solution comes from an article published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: chew gum. The articles states, “Doing so appears to reduce the numbers of wanted and unwanted songs in your head and is consistent with other studies saying gum chewing disrupts voluntary memory recollection.”

So now I have a plan to stop the wheels on the bus. I’ll chew gum and sing every verse aloud, including the verses about the wipers and the horn and the people. If that doesn’t work, I’ll play Scrabble, my all-time favorite board and online game. And for good measure, I’ll call a friend for a phone visit. I just hope she doesn’t mention the words wheels or bus.


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