Earworms: The Song Stuck in Your Head
What goes in one ear doesn’t come out the other.
A new parasite has embedded itself within society: taking over our minds, actions, and conversations. Chances are, if you’ve recently listened to the radio or your iPod, you’ve already been infected with what researchers have termed “the earworm.” This new parasite is closely related to diseases known as “melodymania” or “repetunitis,” sufferers of which are commonly heard to complain of having songs stuck in their heads.
Studying the Song
An earworm, a term derived from the German “ohrwurm,” is defined as a “cognitive itch1” or “the inability to dislodge a song and prevent it from repeating itself in one’s head.2” This phenomenon has recently become a burgeoning area of neurological study. Several major universities, including Dartmouth College and the University of Cincinnati, have undertaken studies that examine the earworm experience. Dartmouth graduate student David Kraemer and his team have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to locate the neural substrates that support “unprompted auditory imagery.3” Kraemer describes the unprompted auditory imagery as any verbal cue, from a phone number to a song. The study found that when a song or portion of a song was played, it activated the subjects’ left primary auditory cortex, an area of the brain responsible for hearing.3 Interestingly, he also found that the same area was activated when the subjects were asked to imagine the song or fill in portions that were removed, suggesting that the earworm feeds off of the memory system of the auditory cortex.3
Music and Memory Systems
One such memory system that the earworm may be relying on is the “phonological loop,” a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex.4 The auditory cortex is located in the temporal lobe, an area of the brain affiliated with short-term memory, specifically verbal short-term memory.5 The phonological loop is best described as a “short loop of recording tape that continuously stores a small amount of auditory information,4” such as the chorus of a song. While most information is processed and then forgotten or stored as long term memory, songs appear to remain in the short-term memory for a longer period of time. Dr. James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati has found a cause for the endurance of earworms may be that “certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain.6” These extraordinary qualities compel the attention of the brain, forcing it to repeat the song in the phonological loop. Similarly, Kellaris has found that the repetition does not remove the song from the phonological loop, but increases the length of its presence, thus creating the cognitive itch.
“Repetition does not remove the song from the phonological loop. Although much about earworms is still unknown, they do present a unique way in which to study the temporal capacities of memory systems. Music, as Kraemer describes it, is a “pervasive and spontaneous form of imagery that punctuate[s] everyday life,3” thus it is a convenient medium through which to study memory. Music is a constant presence in today’s society, and it even seems that songs are designed to be stuck in our heads. The catchy choruses and hypnotic melodies color our daily activities. Have Justin Beiber, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga unearthed a science to reel us in with their hooks; or are our brains’ memory systems simply easy prey for music? The continued study of earworms and audiological memory systems will hopefully answer these questions.
1 Watson, Stephanie. “Discovery Health ‘Why Do Songs Get Stuck in My Head?’” Discovery Health “Health Guides” Discovery Health, 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2011. <http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/perception/songs-stuck-in-head.htm>.
2 Beaman, C. P. and Williams, T.I. (2010) Earworms (“stuck song syndrome”): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British Journal of Psychology , 101 (4). pp. 637-653
3 Kraemer, David J.M., C. Neil Macrae, Adam E. Green, and William M. Kelley. “Musical Imagery: Sound of Silence Activates Auditory Cortex : Nature.” Nature Publishing Group : Science Journals, Jobs, and Information. Nature Publishing Group, 9 Mar. 2005. Web. 26 Feb. 2011. <http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7030/full/434158a.html>.
4 Wagner, Richard K. “From Simple Structure to Complex Function: Major Trends in the Development of Theories, Models, and Measurements of Memory.” Attention, Memory, and Executive Function. Baltimore: P.H. Brookes Pub., 1996. 149-51. Print.
5 Milner, Brenda. “Memory and the Medial Temporal Regions of the Brain.” Biology of Memory. New York and London: Academic, 1970. 30`-31. Print.
6 Kellaris, James J. “Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the ‘Song-stuck-in-your-head’ Phenomenon.” Eds. Christine Page and Steve Posavac. Proceedings ofthe Society for Consumer Psychology Winter 2003 Conference. New Orleans, LA:American Psychological Society, 2003: 220-222.