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Understanding and overcoming earworms: Tips from a neurologist


Have you ever found yourself haunted by a catchy tune playing on a loop in your head? This common phenomenon, known as an earworm, can be both amusing and annoying. But what exactly is an earworm, and how can you get rid of it? We delve into the science behind these persistent melodies and offer expert advice on how to silence them.

What is an earworm, exactly?

An earworm is a snippet of a song that seems to stick in your mind, repeating itself uncontrollably. According to Steven Gordon, M.D., a neurologist at UC Health and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, these fragments are typically 15 to 30 seconds long and can be triggered by memories or emotions. Neurologically, earworms are tied to how we process and remember auditory information, and psychologically, they represent a cognitive itch that our brain keeps scratching.

While earworms might feel unique to you, they are a universal experience, with research suggesting that up to 98% of people in Western cultures have encountered them.

What causes earworms?

Earworms often arise from subconscious triggers such as emotional states or associations with memories. Dr. Gordon explains that certain songs, especially those that are up-tempo and have repetitive melodies, are more likely to become earworms. These tunes can easily dominate the brain’s phonological loop, a component of working memory that handles verbal and auditory information.

Individuals who frequently daydream or have wandering minds may be more susceptible to earworms. Musicians and those with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may also experience them more frequently.

How to get rid of an earworm

Contrary to popular belief, repeatedly listening to the song in your head might not be the best solution. Instead, Dr. Gordon suggests engaging in activities that occupy your mind, such as chewing gum, tuning into talk radio, or solving puzzles. While there’s no definitive research confirming the effectiveness of these methods, they may provide relief for some.

If earworms are related to OCD, medication prescribed for the condition could help reduce their occurrence.

In conclusion, earworms are a normal part of human cognition, but they don’t have to disrupt your day. By understanding their causes and experimenting with different distraction techniques, you can find your own method to break free from the loop of a catchy tune.