WWU researcher: Songs stuck in your head not always music to your ears

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 14, 2013 

Think of a song.

Now let me make a few predictions about the song in your head.

It's probably one that you enjoy, or at least don't mind. You likely heard just a part of it, perhaps the chorus. And the song didn't linger, but it has a good chance of popping into your head again sometime soon.

Those are typical features of songs that stick in people's heads, features that run counter to the widespread myth that such songs are both obnoxious and unending.

"It definitely happens, but it's relatively rare," said Ira Hyman, a psychology professor at Western Washington University.

Hyman and six recent WWU graduates recently published their research on "intrusive songs" that Hyman said breaks new ground because it includes experiments in which songs were introduced into the heads of test subjects, in this case, unsuspecting undergraduates.

Their report, "Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head," was published online in December in the journal "Applied Cognitive Psychology."

They studied so-called "earworm" songs as one way to explore the broader phenomenon of intrusive thoughts, which include unpleasant memories and mind wandering. Among their findings:

• The nature of songs - say, a pop song with a catchy chorus - doesn't explain which ones stick in people's brains. In an online survey of 299 people for their research, there was little overlap of songs. In fact, 75 percent reported a stuck song that no one else mentioned.

• Music that has been recently heard is a better guide to which songs do pop up unsolicited.

• Songs are more likely to pop up while someone is doing a very easy or a very hard task.

It wasn't surprising that students doing something easy had music on their mind. Activities with what's called "low cognitive load" - such as a leisurely stroll - are often associated with stray thoughts or songs rattling around in your skull. Many people, myself included, find such that moments allow helpful "aha!" ideas to surface.

At the other end of the cognitive-load spectrum, students facing tough mental tasks also were more likely to have intrusive songs in their head. Hyman said that's because people who are trying, but failing, to solve a problem or absorb a dense textbook will lose their mental focus. They take a mental break, and suddenly a song or random thought steals the limelight.

"Consciousness is like a stage," Hyman said. When people are fully engaged in an activity, their mental spotlight remains focused and random thoughts are less likely to intrude. But when a task is too easy or too hard, the spotlight wavers and thoughts and songs waiting in the wings move onstage.

He calls it the "Goldilocks effect."

"It can't be too easy, it can't be too hard, it has to be just right," he said.

Learning what causes earworm songs and how they can be controlled could help people better understand and control other types of intrusive thoughts, Hyman said. He plans more research on the subject.

For now, he said, one way to cope with a bothersome song in your head is to replace it with another one. He's done that while bicycling home with lab-test songs playing a mental loop.

"You don't like that one? Start singing something else!"

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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