(In and) Out of My Mind- Part 1


Do you know what the most annoying thing in the world is? Now some of you might answer, "world hunger" or "sickness" or "taxes", but I'd beg to differ. For me, the most annoying thing in the world is when Carly Rae Jepsen's song "Call Me Maybe" comes on the radio. That's because even though I turn the radio off within a few seconds, that's all it takes for the chorus to start playing over and over on an endless loop inside my brain.


In an attempt to learn more about why this happens and possibly how to prevent it, I decided to investigate what happens in a person's brain when a song gets stuck in their head.

The phenomenon, commonly referred to by scientists as "earworms" or "auditory imagery", occurs within the auditory cortex of the brain and has been the subject of numerous research studies.


One of the most prominent and most referenced of these studies was published in March of 2005 by a team of scientists led by David Kraemer, a graduate student at Dartmouth University. First, the subjects (15 Dartmouth students) were asked to sort songs from a list into those that they were familiar with and those that they weren't. Some of these songs had lyrics, and others were purely instrumental. Later, the subjects' brain activity was monitored using an fMRI scanner while each song from the initial list was played. However, at certain points in each song the sound would cut out completely for 2-5 seconds before resuming. In other words, the songs weren't paused, but were silenced and then resumed after 2-5 seconds of the song had passed. The measurements of the neural activity during these gaps revealed which songs got "stuck" in the subjects' heads and which didn't. 


For both lyrical and instrumental songs, "Silent gaps embedded in familiar songs induced greater activation in auditory association areas then did silent gaps embedded in unknown songs".  Similarly, after the study was over, the participants reported "hearing" a continuation of the familiar songs when the audio went silent and not the unfamiliar. One of the most important findings of this experiment though was that, "in contrast to the gap responses, listening to unknown songs produced greater activity in auditory association areas [as a whole] than did familiar songs" because it provides evidence to support the claim that the momentary silences are what triggered the "earworm" response.


While these results seem logical, it is important to acknowledge that they could've been due to chance or experimental flaws. One major problem that I had with Kraemer's study is that it only involved 15 participants, which is a very small sample size. Furthermore, there was no demographic, health, or psychological information provided on the subjects that took part in the experiment. Yet, the findings of Kraemer's experiment imply that they apply to the human brain in general. This conclusion cannot be effectively drawn from such an unrepresentative sample.


With all this being said, Kraemer's findings still seem to make sense when I take my own experiences into consideration. Every once and awhile, I'll be listening to my iPod before a class when a professor starts to begin the day's lesson, forcing me to cut my current song short. Depending on which song I was listening too and how far in I was when I paused it, the music sometimes gets stuck in my head and distracts me from the lecture. Most often, it seems like the songs that  "stick around" are those that I've been exposed to the most (my favorites) and therefore am most familiar with. However, these are just my personal observations and may not apply to most people. 


Yet, I still wonder what other factors play a role in creating the earworm phenomenon. Some of the questions that I still have but did not have enough blog space to address are listed below:

1. Why do some "familiar" songs get stuck in your head while others don't?

2. How does the genre of music and a person's personal preferences affect the earworm phenomenon?

3. What determines how much of a song you have to listen before it gets stuck in your head?

4. Once a song is in your head, what's the best way to get it out?


I plan on examining Question #4 in the Part 2 of this blog post, but I'm interested in hearing what people have to say about Part 1. Feel free to leave comments and/or questions and I'll address them to the best of my abilities.  


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