Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Worm's Turn

Earworms. You know them, you love them, because you might as well — you can’t shake them if you try.

Also known as “involuntary musical imagery” or “musical imagery repetition” or, my favorite, “stuck song syndrome,” we’re not talking about genuine auditory hallucinations here. That would be palinacousis, a nasty result of damage to the brain’s temporal lobe that is, fortunately, extremely rare. But earworms — a fragment of a song that repeats in your mind over and over — are extremely common, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Research has revealed a few things we probably could have figured out even without a grant. Earworms tend to be around 15 to 30 seconds long — the range of our brain’s auditory short term memory. People in the record biz won’t be surprised to learn which short part of a tune is most likely to become an earworm: the hook. Men and women get earworms equally often, but they tend to last longer for women and bother them more. Earworms are most common among people with OCD, musicians, and disc jockeys. I can vouch for that last one. As for OCD deejays who play in a band, well, I guess the party never stops.

Researchers at Goldsmiths University of London are compiling a database of songs with a tendency toward involuntary loop-ability, and are particularly interested in the fact that earworms are fairly veridical; meaning the tune that cycles in our head is often a pretty accurate version of the actual song. They’d like to know if this effortless yet accurate form of recall might have some value in understanding learning and memory.

It would be easy to assume that earworms are just another proud achievement of our 24/7 electronic distraction-based modern culture. In fact, they have a long history and a rich and varied presence in literature. Earworms have been studied, written about, and theorized upon by Freudian analysts, neurologists, and philosophers.

The word itself is borrowed from the German word ohrwurm, which means… earworm. Mistakenly believed to refer to some kind of actual worm that likes actual ears, the word ohrwurm’s true origins are equally delightful to ponder. It refers to ancient medicinal remedies for ear infections, which involved dried and ground up bugs, the same bugs we now call “earwigs,” and…well, you get the idea.

Possibly the earliest literary reference to earworms pre-dates the phonograph. In an 1845 short story, “Imp of the Perverse,” Edgar Allen Poe wrote:

“It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.”

“The Supremacy of Uruguay” is a 1933 short story by E.B. White about fleets of unmanned airplanes (pre-drones!) armed with record players and powerful speakers, which blanket the land with an irresistible, maddening earworm, and thus conquer humanity. And one of the fathers of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, published “The Ultimate Melody” in 1957, which describes a melody that so perfectly synchs up with the electrical rhythms of the brain that the listener becomes forever enraptured, and ultimately catatonic. This is also pretty much how my son describes attending a rave.

Is there a cure? Not really, no. Some medical research suggests that OCD medications can at least turn down the volume of earworms. Wow, who saw that one coming? Imagine the disclaimer at the end of that TV commercial. It better not have a catchy tune. Other researchers found that engaging your mind in tasks that make your short term memory do a little heavy lifting, such as working a puzzle or reading a novel, can help.

Or maybe Mark Twain figured it out back in 1876, when he came up with the cure we all kind of suspect is the one true cure anyway. In Twain’s short story “A Literary Nightmare”, he describes an earworm in terms of a virus, and the only way to rid yourself of the virus is to “infect” another person with it.

So — next time you have an earworm, don’t suffer in silence. Tell a friend.

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