Earworm therapy

From the Telegraph on 3/24/13, a story by science correspondent Richard Gray headed:

Get that tune out of your head – scientists find how to get rid of earworms

Scientists claim to have found a way to help anyone plagued by earworms – those annoying tunes that lodge themselves inside our heads and repeat on an endless loop.

(Hat tip to John Lawler.)

The story continues:

They are the songs you cannot get out of your head. Now scientists may have found a way to help anyone plagued by those annoying tunes that lodge themselves inside our heads and repeat on an endless loop.

Researchers claim the best way to stopping the phenomenon, sometimes known as earworms – where snippets of a catchy song inexplicably play like a broken record in your brain – is to solve some tricky anagrams.

This can force the intrusive music out of your working memory, they say, allowing it to be replaced with other more amenable thoughts.

But they also warn not to try anything too difficult as those irritating melodies may wiggle their way back into your consciousness.

… “The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge,” said Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University who conducted the research. “If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.

No reference to literature; the press rarely cites references — only interviews with people. I went to the Wikipedia earworm entry and found this:

Scientists at Western Washington University found that engaging the working memory in moderately difficult tasks (such as anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or reading a novel) was an effective way of countering earworms.[15][16]

Reference 15 is Gray’s Telegraph story. Reference 16 is another newspaper story from the 24th: Got a song stuck in your head? Solving an anagram can help get rid of it, Daily Mail, 24 March 2013. Sigh.

There are other reports in the media. But eventually I found a report in BPS Research Digest: Blogging on brain and behaviour:

How to kill an earworm

If earworms – songs that play in your head – drive you crazy, you’ll welcome clues for how to eradicate them that come from a new study by psychologists at Western Washington University, USA.

First – and I realise this doesn’t sound appealing – try to avoid songs that you like. The new research suggests they are most likely to become lodged in your head (contrary to the myth that it’s obnoxious songs with most earworm potential). If you must listen to a favoured song, check to see if it starts playing in your head right afterwards. If it does, then it’s well on its way to becoming an earworm. This is a particular risk is you find that only a part of the song plays in your head.

Ira Hyman Jr. and his colleagues believe this last detail may be a manifestation of the classic Zeigarnik Effect, whereby incomplete tasks remain in memory but evaporate once completed. In the case of earworms, the researchers propose that the playing of only a part of a song in your head leaves it incomplete and thereby increases the likelihood that it will return against your will as an earworm. This insight suggests that one way to squash a developing earworm is to make sure, once a song starts playing in your head, that you see it all the way through (perhaps you will need to listen to the track again to ensure this is possible).

Finally, after listening to music, try to avoid mental tasks that are either too easy or too difficult. Any kind of activity that increases your mind-wandering will also provide fertile ground for an earworm to develop. In the same vein, engaging in an absorbing task will tie up your mental resources and deny the earworm the chance to grow.

This one had a link to the actual research report:

Hyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., and Roundhill, R. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2897 (March/April 2013, Volume 27, Issue 2. Pages 139–275)

with the abstract:

Summary: Having a song stuck in your head is a commonly experienced intrusive thought. We explored the intrusive song phenomenon through a survey, an experimental diary study, and three laboratory experiments. Contrary to the belief that only obnoxious songs get stuck, we found that songs people know and like frequently became intrusive. We also found that intrusive songs followed environmental cues. In addition, if a song continued to play in someone’s head immediately after listening to it, the song was likely to return as an intrusive song within the next 24 hours. Similar to mind wandering, the return of intrusive songs depended on cognitive resources: people reported that intrusive songs returned during low cognitive load activities, and we found that overloading the cognitive systems with challenging activities increased intrusive song frequency. Throughout our studies, we easily created and manipulated intrusive song experiences. Songs provide a valuable method to investigate intrusive thoughts.

The research necessarily depends on self-reports; there’s no way we can directly sample people’s thoughts. That’s a weakness, but an unavoidable one.

The five studies used different methods and they are not equally suited for statistical analysis. The responses to the survey questions, for example, are reported as percentages (of the 299 respondents); still, there are some intriguing results, for instance:

Another important aspect of intrusive songs is that they are generally unique to the individual. For 75.1% of our respondents, their intrusive song was unique to them. Only 24.9% experienced the same intrusive song as at least one other respondent. Furthermore, only nine songs were reported by more than two individuals. The frequently reported songs were generally popular when the survey was conducted. For example, four different songs by Lady Gaga were reported by two or more individuals. Overall, the variety of songs reported indicates that any song can potentially become stuck in someone’s head.

From the second study (with 16 participants):

In sum, we found that intrusive songs may return at both ends of the cognitive load continuum: during low cognitive load activities (e.g., walking) and during mentally challenging activities (e.g., schoolwork).

We also investigated whether songs that were interrupted would be more likely to return as intrusive songs. This would be consistent with a Zeigarnik effect in which interrupted activities remain active in thought. We found no difference between interrupted (M = 45.18, SD = 21.98) and completed songs (M = 38.64, SD = 21.21) in the percentage that returned, t(15) = 1.216, p = .243, d = 0.30.

The experimental studies involved more complex manipulations. I haven’t worked through the statistics, though there are many significant differences in the results. Some are, of course, not very large differences, so that they should be reported as indicating tendencies rather than crisp differences; but the media are inclined to crispify differences. Gray’s Telegraph story is unusually measured in its claims: note “can force” and “may wiggle”, rather than “will force” and “will wiggle”. Helpful therapy, but not guaranteed to work.


3 Responses to “Earworm therapy”

  1. Andy Sleeper Says:

    I love the way you use “crispify.” The only dictionary entry I can find for this is in urbandictionary.com, which says it means to burn to a crisp. You add a new connotation: to impute greater significance to a result than is supported by the data. Love it!

  2. the ridger Says:

    I remember reading something once, years ago, that recommended against using rock music for your on-hold system (they recommended light jazz or light classical). The article said that people felt they had been on hold longer than they actually had, and speculated that this was because they could complete the songs in their head and thought they’d been on hold long enough to actually have heard the whole song. I wonder if hearing such things incompletely on hold might not also contribute to earworms.

  3. Earworm therapy | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] other things), see “Sticky expressions” of 3/31/13. And on earworm therapy, see my 4/2/13 posting on the […]

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