Being under the spell of a phenomenon known as earworm is a marvel to behold. The first time I heard the song Jealous by a Nigerian artist Fireboy, I couldn’t explain what was happening to me. I kept humming the song repeatedly days later even after the record had stopped playing. Even though I couldn’t explain what it was, I knew something was off about the way that tune stuck in my head.
Unknown to me I was under a psychological phenomenon known as an earworm. This marvel, sometimes known as a brain worm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI), is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing 
Just like the literal worm, brain worm has the capability of tormenting and invading your privacy. Uniquely annoying, the songs that get stuck are incomplete tunes and the brain is probably interpreting it as an unfinished task.
I might not be a mainstream rock star record producer, but there’s something weird about how some melodic hooks stick to the brain, you’ll think the records have been enchanted just to exploit the earworm phenomenon.
Before you pass judgment on me for being superstitious in my thinking, how then would anyone explain why I wake up with a melody jammed in my head? All through the day, sometimes I even dance to my earworms. Indisputably, occasionally I love them, I feel lively and impenetrable in my small haven.
Personally, I feel melody could be a great way to express the human experience. For example, recurrent themes such as love, pain, loss, grief, excitement, anger, celebration, jealousy, joy are intensely portrayed in music.
I am not crazy after all; I used to think this only happens to me till I met a colleague who involuntarily sings when she’s excited, unconcerned or dumbfounded. In short, she’s highly infested by this earworm.
For us to appreciate how involuntary musical imagery affects us, let’s take a closer look at it
WHAT IS STUCK SONG SYNDROME?
There are many synonyms used to describe the stuck song syndrome, examples include; earworms, repetunitis, and melodymania.
This sensation may be really bothersome, except in a psychiatric case, earworms don’t appear to be harmful.
According to Williamson et al. the phenomenon is simply known as “earworms” describes the experience whereby a short section of music comes into the mind, spontaneously, without effort, and then repeats without conscious control .
Similarly, a paper published by Br J Gen Pract in 2016 suggested that ‘’Recurring tunes that involuntarily pop up and stick in your mind are common: up to 98% of the Western population has experienced these earworms.’’ Usually, stuck songs are catchy tunes, popping up spontaneously or triggered by emotions, associations, or by hearing the melody.
So if you’ve never experienced the stuck song syndrome, you’ll be conjecturing what it feels like.
Characteristically, they are repeated little melodic tunes that keep coming back and make music more alluring or catchy. It could sometimes annoy if a tune you don’t really appreciate sticks out of your head like that.
Why would any good brain keep remembering things that annoy it? While this might be perplexing, I think our brains have a negative bias about things. For example, it’s quite easy for the brain to remember the bad, funny or trivial things that occur in the environment than actually remembering the ones the person makes a conscious effort to recall.
Back in my university days, it was pretty easy to remember the jokes told by our professor in chemistry class. But ask me anything about electromagnetism? I bet you my brain would just revert to a brand-new tabula rasa.
WHY DO SONGS GET STUCK TO YOUR BRAIN?
Well, for me as far back as I could remember, I have been a fan of ABBA before I could talk. My father used to play it on his Walkman radio all the time. While I’m not sure if they knew about Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI), I am openly accusing them of inducing the stuck song syndrome in nearly all of their songs.
Would it be right to say the brain has a mind of its own? Since our brain supposedly houses our minds. As you may know, there are certain other actions our brains take that are purely automatic, for example; breathing, heartbeats, coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting.
These functions are carried out without us being totally aware of the job the brain is doing. Since the brain activates as automated hardware, it’s capable of seamless actions and wonders. It is not totally surprising your brain can play a trick on you when idle by substituting salient thoughts, abstract thinking or a broken record that keeps repeating itself.
Personally, the songs that got stuck in my head are melodious tunes that I don’t fully grasp the whole lyrics or tune. It’s probably jammed because the brain regards this task as an unfinished job. Since man is an automated learning machine, the brain keeps prompting me of an assignment I needed to conclude.
Ani Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego says, ‘’evolution speaking, It is now believed by many that music came before the speech in human development.’’
Consequently, by learning and remembering note and rhythm patterns that became frequently understood and shared we technologically advanced a pattern ‘language’ beyond a hand gesture which is believed to be the earliest form of language.
The complexity of the sticky music is appreciated when songs not written in a familiar language get stuck in your head.
“We feel the music just taps into this kind of precognitive archaic part of ourselves,” he added. “So it seems to make sense that music came ‘before we had this complicated articulate language that we used to do abstract thinking’.”
Have you ever wonder why some people sing while taking a shower? According to Jakubowski, the bonding agent in Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI) is the tempo of the tune, the faster the song, the more likely it is to spontaneously pop into your head.
That’s probably because people have a tendency to move along with earworms, so earworms can get stuck in your head when you’re briskly taking a walk while taking your bath, or sweeping—merely because they match the rhythm of what you’re doing .
Wikipedia’s account of the cause of stuck song syndrome postulates that by the “release phenomenon”(unrestricted activity of a lower brain center when a higher center with inhibitory control is injured, damaged, or removed) is caused by hypersensitivity in the auditory cortex caused by sensory deprivation, secondary to their hearing loss.
As a result, the gap in the hearing range is bridged by the brain packing a piece of information – in this case, a piece of melody.
While this postulation tries to present a clinical psychiatric front to earworm, your mind should not be troubled, this particular condition does not pose any serious risk of disability, pain, death, or loss of freedom.
That brings us to the next mind bugging question.
WHAT TRIGGERS STUCK SONG SYNDROME?
According to a publication by psychologytoday.com, ‘’Compulsive behavior typically involves a repetitive and irresistible urge to perform a particular action (or set of actions) where the person feels they have no control to inhibit or stop the habitual behavior.’’
It’s worthy to note that impulsivity is part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is a personality disorder characterized by excessive orderliness, perfectionism, attention to detail, and a need for control in relating to others .
Webmed.com regard stuck song syndrome as a mental illness expressed as auditory hallucinations, but there are a lot of other reasons, including Alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, drugs, epilepsy, hearing loss, high fever, and infections, intense stress, migraines, Parkinson’s disease, sleep problems, side effects of medicines. … You might hear things, too, both as you drink or when you quit after you’ve been drinking for many years.
ARE EARWORMS A SIGN OF MENTAL ILLNESS?
From the antiquity of stuck song syndrome, Br J Pract maintains that earworms are connected to memory: aural information functions as a stout mnemonic. Psychologically, earworms are a ‘cognitive itch’: the brain automatically itches back, resulting in a vicious loop.
The more one tries to subdue the songs, the more their impulse increases, a psychological process known as ironic process theory. a certain group of people is more susceptible to stuck song syndrome, for example; females, youth, and patients with OCD.
For a person who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, your psychiatrist may consider stuck song syndrome as intrusions which are unwelcome involuntary thoughts. They are seen as a subtype of obsessions.
It is worthy of note that people experiencing earworms as intolerably annoying and stressful are possibly expressing typical OCD symptoms which may include but not limited to mysophobia ( a fear of germs, dirt, and contamination), Fear of losing control and harming yourself or others, Intrusive sexually explicit or violent thoughts and images, Excessive focus on religious or moral ideas, Fear of losing or not having things you might need etc.
As Williamson puts it earworms may be part of a larger phenomenon called “involuntary memory”, a category which also includes the desire to eat something after the idea of it has popped into your head .
HOW DO YOU GET RID OF EARWORMS?
5 awesome ways to get rid of earworms
- Listen to the whole song. You’re likely going to remain stuck if you can only remember small fragments of the music that repeat over and over (usually the hook of a song or the chorus).
- Listen to another song. No matter how superhuman your brain is, it’s less likely to concentrate on two songs at the same time. This is because while listening to music, the entire brain is used. There are only a few other activities that utilize your brain like this.
- Distract yourself. Stuck song syndrome persists mostly when you are idle. Entertaining yourself with a conscious task like reading would work.
- Chew gum. Aside from serving as a distraction chewing gum is a good way of exercising your facial muscles, eliminating nausea and lessen depression.
- Ignore it. The “fade away” technique – refers to allowing the songs dispel unconsciously as it came without actually fighting it. This method is also utilized in brain science which suggests trying to suppress thoughts can bring on more of the thoughts.
- Do not fight it. Trying to battle stuck song syndrome would only reinforce it. As Sean Rossman puts it “The earworm phenomenon might be similar in that attempts to actively displace earworms may sometimes backfire and actually increase the length of the episodes,”
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