BBC Future column: earworms

From a couple of weeks ago, my column from BBC Future, about everyday brain quirks (as I’ve mentioned previously). Thanks to Maria Panagiotidi for help with this one.

“Earworms”, some people call them. Songs that get stuck in your head and go round and round, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. For no apparent reason you cannot help yourself from humming or singing a tune by Lady Gaga or Coldplay, or horror upon horrors, the latest American Idol reject.

To a psychologist – or at least to this psychologist – the most interesting thing about earworms is that they show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. Earworms arrive without permission and refuse to leave when we tell them to. They are parasites, living in a part of our minds that rehearses sounds.

We all get these musical memories, and people appear to have different ones, according to a team at Goldsmiths University in London, who collected a database of over 5,000 earworms. True, the songs that we get stuck with tend to be simple and repetitive, but it seems we are not all singing the same number one song at the same time.

Lost in music

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia that earworms are a clear sign of “the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music”. Music is defined by repetition, just like earworms, and this might make earworms so hard to shake – they are musical memories that loop, say a particular verse or a hook, forever repeating rather than running to completion. Some people report that singing an earworm to the end can help get rid of it (others report in frustration that this does not work at all).

As well as containing repetition, music is also unusual among the things we regularly encounter for being so similar each time we hear it. Fences are visually repetitive, for example, but each time you see the same fence you will look at it from a different angle, or in different light. Put a song on your stereo and the sound comes out virtually identical each time. Remembering is powerfully affected by repetition, so maybe the similarity of music engraves deep grooves in our mind. Grooves in which earworms can thrive.

Another fact about earworms is that they often seem to have something interesting or usual about them. Although they will often be simple and repetitive bits of music, tunes that become earworms have a little twist or peculiarity, something that makes them “catchy”, and perhaps this is a clue as to why they can take hold in our memory system. If there was nothing unique about them they would be swamped by all the other memories that sound similar too.

Slave to the rhythm

If you have got a particularly persistent earworm you can suffer an attack of it merely by someone mentioning the tune, without having to hear it. This proves that earworms are a phenomenon of long-term memory, rather than merely being a temporary “after-image” in sound.

But this is not the whole story. Human memory researchers have identified so called “slave systems” in our short-term memory, components of the mind which capture sights and sounds, keeping them alive for a short time while we focus on them.

One slave system is the “mind’s eye”, capturing visual information, another is the “inner ear”, the part we use for remembering phone numbers, for instance. It is this second part that seems to get infected with earworms. Rather than rehearse our plans for the day, idle thoughts, or lists of things to remember, the inner ear gets stuck on a few short bars of music or a couple of phrases from a song. A part of us that we normally do not have to think about, that should just do what we ask, has been turned against us, tormenting us with a jukebox request that we never asked for.

That our minds are not a unity is one of the basic insights of modern psychology – it is the story Dr Freud was telling, and, although it differs on many of the details, modern cognitive neuroscience says a similar thing. The sense of our selves is not the only thing going on in our minds, psychology says. The mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or have control over.

Mind games

Fortunately psychology can provide some vital intelligence on how to deal with an unruly mind. Consider the famous “don’t think of a white bear” problem, which as it implies involves trying not to think about white bears. Try this yourself, or you can set it as a challenge for a loved one you would like to torment. This problem is a paradox: by trying not to think of a thing you constantly have to be checking if you are still thinking of it – re-invoking precisely the thing you are trying not to think of.

The general solution for the white bear problem is to do something else, to avoid both thinking of the white bear and not thinking of the white bear. For earworms, the solution may be the same. Our inner ear, a vital part of our cognitive machinery for remembering and rehearsing sounds, has become infected with an earworm. This is a part of ourselves which is not under our control, so just sending in instructions to “shut up” is unlikely to be of much help (and has been shown to make it worse). Much better is to employ the inner ear in another task, preferably something incompatible with rehearsing the earworm.

If earworms survive because of their peculiarity, the hook that makes them catch, then my prediction for ridding yourself of an earworm is to sing songs that are similar. If your mind is poisoned by Brittany Spears’ Toxic, for instance, then try singing Kylie Minogue’s appropriately titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. By my theory this will erode the uniqueness of the memory habitat that lets the earworm survive. Let me know if it works!

Link: My columns at BBC Future
Link: UK readers – you’ll have to try it via here

Is the brain the centre of your universe?

The Observer has a fantastic debate between neuroscientists David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis about how much brain science tells us about free will and the unconscious.

It’s a wonderful pairing as Eagleman is a broad-thinking wonderboy of neuroscience while Tallis is a veteran street-fighter of brain debates.

The main point of contention revlves around whether we can understand the brain as the source of human nature or whether we have to look beyond the individual to make sense of our experience and behaviour.

Eagleman: It is clear at this point that we are irrevocably tied to the 3lb of strange computational material found within our skulls. The brain is utterly alien to us, and yet our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on the integrity of this biological tissue. How do we know this? Because when the brain changes, we change…

Tallis: Yes, of course, everything about us, from the simplest sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of self, requires a brain in some kind of working order. Remove your brain and bang goes your IQ. It does not follow that our brains are pretty well the whole story of us, nor that the best way to understand ourselves is to stare at “the neural substrate of which we are composed”.

This is because we are not stand-alone brains. We are part of community of minds, a human world, that is remote in many respects from what can be observed in brains. Even if that community ultimately originated from brains, this was the work of trillions of brains over hundreds of thousands of years: individual, present-day brains are merely the entrance ticket to the drama of social life, not the drama itself.

As an accompaniment to the piece, I also wrote a ‘brief guide to neuroscience’ that you can also read online.

Link to debate ‘The brain… it makes you think. Doesn’t it?’
Link to ‘A brief guide to neuroscience’.

The delightful science of laughter

Neuroscientist Sophie Scott gave a fantastic talk on the science of laughter for a recent TEDx event that you can now watch online.

Talks on the science of humour are famously humourless (usually made all the more dire by the desperate inclusion of some not very funny ‘funny cartoons’) but this discussion of laughter is appropriately delightful.

Scott describes a study her team carried out on the cross cultural recognition of non-verbal vocal sounds (like whoops of triumph) to find that only laughter was universal.

The whole talk is fully of such fascinating snippets, tackling both the social psychology and neuroscience of laughing. Well worth ten minutes of your time.

Link to ace talk on the science of laughter.

Mind Changers back for another series

BBC Radio 4’s brilliant psychology series Mind Changers has made a comeback and has a new season looking at some of the biggest ideas in cognitive science.

It has kicked off with programmes on South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe and the treatment of anxiety as well as an edition on Julian Rotter and the idea of locus of control or the extent to which we believe that we can control events that affect us.

As always, the series is fantastic, looking not only at the ideas but also the people behind these key theories in psychology.

Wait, you say, one of the BBC’s finest series on psychology, back for another series and available online, surely this too good to be true?

As it turns out, which is almost always the case with the Beeb’s digital offerings, it is too good to be true. The flaw this time is that there are no podcasts – only online streaming.

So in light of the BBC’s inability to keep up with the digital world, I’ve included a picture of Julian Rotter smoking a pipe. Especially pertinent as he looks like he’s thinking “torrent servers, my friends, torrent servers”.

Link to excellent Mind Changers series.

Snakes on a brain

The latest Journal of Neuroscience features a study on the neuroscience behind Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s famouse Rotating Snakes illusion and to celebrate they’re made a ‘Rotating Brain’ illusion for the front cover.

This type of illusion, often called a peripheral drift illusion, was thought to occur due to slow drifting eye movements but this new study suggests that it is more likely to be explained by rapid but tiny eye movements called saccades.

Brain-shaped version of Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s “Rotating Snakes” illusion. In its usual presentation, the image consists of concentric circles of stepwise luminance gradients with curved edges, which produces a strong illusion of rotation in most observers. New evidence suggests this illusion is produced by transient oculomotor events such as microsaccades, saccades, and blinks, rather than continuous drift.

Despite the fantastic cover I expect the journal to outdo itself next time and have both an article explaining the neuroscience Brocken spectre as well as an image you can hide up a mountanside to create 20 metre tall ghost-like figures.

Link to study (via

Don’t tase my lobe

A case report in Forensic Science International describes a man who had a taser dart penetate his skull and damage his frontal lobes after getting in a drunken confrontation with police.

Curiously, the man was unaware he had a taser dart in his brain and only went to hospital after he got home and noticed the dart sticking out of his head.

A 27 old man was immobilized by the police while he struggled with a police officer during an identification check and attempted an escape. He had a high level of alcohol at the time of the arrest. A X26 Taser was used to incapacitate and subdue the victim.

No immediate medical examination was subsequently performed in the patient after the wires were propelled and he was allowed to return home. However, because he complained of a headache, he decided to go to the nearest hospital a few hours later.

Upon presentation at the Emergency Department the patient was conscious. The examination revealed a harpoon-like barbed electrode dart implanted in the right frontal part of the skull and a right peri-orbital bruise…

The brain CT scan revealed an encephalic injury in the right area of the frontal lobe. In fact, the probe was implanted in the frontal area of the skull and then in the right frontal cortex with a penetration depth of a few millimeters.

There’s a moral in this story somewhere but damned if I can find it.

Link to Forensic Science International case report.

A new symbol for epilepsy in Chinese

The Chinese character for epilepsy has been changed to avoid the inaccuracies and stigma associated with the previous label which suggested links to madness and, more unusually, animals.

The new name, which looks like this just makes reference to the brain although the story of how the original name got its meaning is quite fascinating in itself.

The following text is from an article in the medical journal Epilepsia which announced the change:

If you’re wondering where the bit about the ‘bizarre movements of goats’ came I suspect it’s from a type of fainting goat that looks like it has seizures and falls over. You can see them ‘in action’ in this YouTube video.

However, the link is mistaken as the goats do not have seizures. The effect is caused by their muscles locking up, independently of their brain, by a condition called myotonia congenita.

Link to ‘Announcement of a new Chinese name for epilepsy’ (via @cmaer)