Above: Image © aluxum, iStockphoto.com

Earworms aren’t little parasitic bugs that bore into your ear. But they can be just as annoying! Ever get a song stuck in your head? You hear it in the morning and sing it on the way to school. It’s still stuck in your head come math class, and by lunch your friends are singing it too. By the end of the day, you never want to hear the blasted song again. That’s an earworm. And it can drive you (and your friends) crazy.

Did you know? People who suffer from endomusia hear music that isn’t actually there. It’s similar to an auditory hallucination.

Scientists don’t know exactly why earworms happen. Or why you’re more likely to get an earworm if you’re a woman, a musician, tired, or stressed. Some researchers think that having a song repeat in your head helps keep your mind busy when it doesn’t have anything else to do. Or maybe trying to get a song out of your head ironically causes you to think about it even more. Sometimes, when you get an earworm, your mind experiences a kind of itch. You feel a compulsive need to finish the song, and you end up repeating it over, and over, and over, and over.

Location of the auditory cortex
Location of the auditory cortex in the human brain. Click image to enlarge (Database Center for Life Science, Wikimedia Commons)

The auditory cortex is the part of your brain that is active when you listen to a song. In fact, scientists have discovered that the auditory cortex becomes active even when you just imagine listening to a song.

For example, researchers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire played a song for study participants while they were in an MRI scanner. That’s a machine that measures brain activity using magnetic and radio waves. Without telling the participants, the researchers switched off the music. But the auditory cortex continued to light up! It was as if the participants’ brains were filling in the parts of the song that got cut off. The researchers also compared brain activity in people when listening to familiar and unfamiliar songs. The brain continued “singing” after a familiar song stopped playing. But the auditory cortex shut off when an unfamiliar song was interrupted, since the brain didn’t know how to continue.

It’s a shame that no one has found a surefire way of getting an earworm out of your head. But there’s no shortage of tips and tricks. Most of them rely on the idea that your brain uses earworms to keep itself busy. If that’s true, all you really need is a distraction. For example, one recent study shows that chewing gum can reduce the occurrence of earworms. And some people suggest singing a different song. But that risks just replacing one earworm with another… Do you have any better suggestions?

Did you know? There are many different words for when a song get stuck in your head. Examples include earworms, repetunitis, and melodymania.

They may be really annoying, but earworms don’t appear to be harmful. Your brain simply seems to need a way of staying occupied when you’re not using it. Even when you sleep, your brain cells never shut off. Instead, they hum very quietly, a phenomenon that has been measured by scientists.

Learn more!

Why do songs get stuck in my head?
Stephanie Watson, HowStuffWorks

This may be why songs get stuck in your head (2015)
Michael Casey, CBS News

Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum! (2015)
P.C. Beaman, K. Powell & E. Rapley, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 68

Anatomy of an earworm (2014)
Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker

Get that tune out of your head - scientists find how to get rid of earworms (2013)
Richard Gray, The Telegraph

Can’t get it out of my head (2006)
Vadim Prokhorov, The Guardian

Aniqah Zowmi

I'm studying towards my B.Sc. (Honours) in Neuroscience, and currently hold an NSERC USRA at Brock University, working in cellular and molecular biology. In between the craziness that is my school courseload, I still manage to find time to lead initiatives, research, and write copious amounts of articles and poetry. I founded a youth speaker's series at my university that highlights youth leaders in the community, and am currently working on a mentorship program for homeless youth.

You can read more of my work - from scientific articles published in magazines to poetry that has been hidden away in my personal collection - at aniqahzowmiwrites.tumblr.com. Feel free to contact me at any time if you want to discuss science, writing, or any manner of things!

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