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Earthworms or earworms?

Posted on August 12, 2021 | Comments

Brain studies reveal that music activates some of the broadest and most diverse networks of the brain. Researchers also confirm that most everyone’s brain has experienced “stuck song syndrome” or what’s scientifically referred to as an “earworm.” Need examples? Think sitcom theme songs like Cheers “where everyone knows your name,” a catchy song such as “Happy” or a popular television commercial. If you like the tune, then it’s not a problem. You can hum along and enjoy.  

If not, hearing the constant repetition of the same tune over and over again can be annoying to the point you feel the song has somehow hijacked your consciousness. The more you try to get the melody out of your head, the more distressed you feel. Maybe you’ve even googled something like “how to get stuck song to stop?” Articles actually show up with this wording although even more appear using earworm, a term formulated from the German word “ohrwurm” which means cognitive itch. Author Desmond Bagley first used the word in his 1978 novel “Flyaway.” Repetitive song loops can also be called “brainworms” or the more medically-oriented term of repetunitis.

For a song to get stuck in the first place, “catchiness” is a major factor. A combination of tempo, volume, rhythm or lyrics is what catches the brain’s attention. Once that occurs, there is a possibility the song will start repeating. If so, neuroscientists have developed a few strategies that may help eliminate earworms. The first is simple enough: chew gum. Researchers also  discovered at Western Washington University that solving simple anagrams or sudoku puzzles counteracts earworms. Listening to audio books or instrumental music sounds like the most likely solution by simply changing what the brain is hearing.  

You may also be pleased to learn that extensive research conducted by UC Davis suggests these experiences are more than a passing nuisance because they play an important role in the formation of memories and could be the basis for improved memory loss therapies. Studies show that the more often a tune plays in a person’s head, the more accurate the memory is for the tune and a person can remember more details about the experience or situation associated with the song.

You might also be whistling a different tune to learn that researchers intend to develop non-pharmaceutical, music-based interventions that will help people suffering from dementia and other neurological disorders to better remember events, people and daily tasks. Sounds like a great idea to me that I will keep in mind the next time a pesky earworm occurs.

Originally published by the OC Register, August 12, 2021

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