Can’t get you out of my head

Photo by Flickr user _ES. Click for sourceSometimes songs get ‘stuck in our head’. In German, this experience is known as having an ‘earworm‘ and a new study shortly to be published in the British Journal of Psychology surveyed the typical features of this common phenomenon.

What particularly struck me was that “the length of both the earworm and the earworm experience frequently exceed standard estimates of auditory memory capacity”.

What is meant by auditory memory here is our ability to consciously remember a short piece of sound or to ‘repeat something back to ourselves’ – often called the ‘phonological loop’ in a popular model of working memory.

This tells us that ‘earworms’ are probably not something getting stuck in our very short-term memory but the reason why such tunes keeping buzzing around our conscious mind is still a mystery.

However, it’s interesting seeing a study address what the experience typically consists of:

Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts

British Journal of Psychology,

C. Philip Beaman and Tim I. Williams

Two studies examine the experience of ‚Äòearworms‚Äô, unwanted catchy tunes that repeat. Survey data show that the experience is widespread but earworms are not generally considered problematic, although those who consider music to be important to them report earworms as longer, and harder to control, than those who consider music as less important. The tunes which produce these experiences vary considerably between individuals but are always familiar to those who experience them. A diary study confirms these findings and also indicates that, although earworm recurrence is relatively uncommon and unlikely to persist for longer than 24 h, the length of both the earworm and the earworm experience frequently exceed standard estimates of auditory memory capacity. Active attempts to block or eliminate the earworm are less successful than passive acceptance, consistent with Wegner’s theory of ironic mental control.

The reference to ‘Wegner’s theory of ironic mental control’ is just the fact that when you deliberately try not to think of something (sometimes called thought suppression) you tend to think about it more often.

Link to study summary.

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