The older we get — and the more we hear that phrase as our baby boomer generation gets … um … older — the more we fall victim to the earworm. Don’t know what that is? Gary Carter does, and says Earworms Are Now Official!
Everyone has suffered an “earworm,” whether you were aware of what to call it or not. You know, that song that crept from somewhere in your cortex and began to sing itself over and over and over and …
Even as I write this, I have my own earworm going on: Tom Petty is crooning the song “It’s Good to Be King,” which hopefully is a reflection of my current state of mind. A couple of days ago, the earworm was horrific.
I couldn’t stop Glen Campbell from wailing “Galveston” until I wanted to beat my head against the wall. Why that song, which I haven’t heard in at least two decades, at least not that I remember? Had I done something so unmentionable that my brain, that so-called conscience therein, was punishing me? I finally had to plug in “Exile on Main Street” at a painful decibel rate to drive Glen out of town. Then, of course, “Tumbling Dice” started rolling around without interruption but, for some bizarre reason, it was the Linda Rondstadt version, not Mick Jagger’s.
But, still, better than “Galveston.” Oh, sorry, now it’s in your head? Sorry.
But I digress. The news is that “earworm” was officially accepted into the lexicon of life by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in the 2012 update, joining other keywords such as mashup, sexting, man cave, and f-bomb. “Earworm” is defined as “a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind.” But as one commentator put it, “It’s more like an insidious virus holding up a tiny boombox inside your brain, playing the same song over and over and over.” And over and over and over again!
It turns out, however, that an earworm is not just a wicked trick of your brain, but something scientifically referred to as a “cognitive itch” or, more simply, a “brain itch” within the auditory cortex. And, like any itch, the only way to soothe it is to scratch it — as in repetition. The exact cause of earworms has yet to be pinpointed, but researchers believe that “brain itch” occurs as a result of the brain’s affinity for pattern recognition. Indeed, there might even be something Darwinian about this phenomenon, traceable back to the use of songs to retain information during our pre-language dark nights huddled around a fire on the grasslands.
Doctor Earworm (a.k.a. James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati) has found through his research that probably 99% of us have had an earworm embed itself at some point. Women, he says, are more frequent sufferers, while musicians and people with “neurotic tendencies” (I resent that) are more susceptible. Doctor Earworm also found that earworm episodes last a few hours and occur “frequently” or “very frequently” among more than 60 percent of his study sample. Face it, that’s a lot of earworms swirling around at any given time, which perhaps explains why some other things go unheard.
As for Doctor Earworm’s recommendations on ridding oneself of this cranial parasite, he suggests listening to other music, what he terms “eraser tunes.” He also says listening to the offending tune in its entirety or putting your mind to some other task might do the trick.
But, proving that Doctor Earworm has a dark side, he also mentions “passing the offending earworm on to someone else.” He doesn’t say exactly how, and I’m not sure I want to know.
By the way, have you ever heard Glen Campbell do “Galveston?” Hear it now?
Want to learn more about current research on earworms and participate in an ongoingstudy? Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, want to hear from you.
Follow Gary Carter online.
(Editor’s note: We at BoomerCafé.com could not resist this opportunity to share a familiar earworm … Glen Campbell singing “Galveston,” written by the legendary Jimmy Webb. So, please crank up the audio and enjoy.)