Most of us would be embarrassed if others could hear the contents of our internal soundtrack. Our self-talk that usually focuses on self-criticism, comparison and commentary on what we see in the avalanche of images coming at us via Instagram.
Internet cat videos, TV and even reading a good book give us a holiday from ourselves and huge growth of “mindfulness” practices, youtube meditation sessions, podcasts are proof that “the west” is seeking refuge from our default mode.
One refuge we love is listening to a favourite sound in our head. Even if that song has lots of redemptive elements (“Don’t worry, be happy” – Joe Dolce, “Happy” – Pharrel Williams) it can get annoying when it’s clamped onto your brain like a crab claw and just…won’t….let….go.
THIS my friends is the well-known “earworm” (or “stuck song syndrome” – SSS or Involuntary Musical Imagery -IMI). People literally exclaim to their friends “I can’t get it out of my head” which also triggers people to hear Kylie Minogue singing a perfect earworm “Can’t get you out of my head” and so the infection spreads when they sing a piece of the song, the friends fill in the pieces and then it gets stuck in their head.’
I’ve asked people if they have earworms and usually say “no”. But if I check in with them a few days or a week later, they’ve suddenly become aware that songs are a backing track to their day.
Repetition exacerbates the problem – in the past “high rotation” on radio meant that songs got stuck in people’s brains. More recently playing Beat Saber on Oculus is based around very catchy music and now those songs are in my brain as soon as I wake up. As soon as I finish a task that I’ve been focussing on and head to the toilet or the kitchen – the Beat Saber song is riding along inside my brain.
So what is the antidote?
I discovered by accident that “choiceless listening” is the most natural go-to solution. This is a form of mindfulness and part of “Choiceless Awareness” (I was surprised to learn that the term was made common by J. K. Krishnamurti).
Choiceless listening is simply allowing your attention to “let in” the sounds around you – this is not a problem while you are making the bed, brushing your teeth, walking to work. I was surprised that whilst I might often be practicing “mindfulness” while doing these tasks, my focus might be more visual or tactile.
Our society is so visually overstimulated that sound is relegated to a minor part of our daily experience – we take hearing for granted – we latch onto words that people say and extract the symbolic meaning, agendas from them – we treat listening as very transactional.
So being super-simple and letting sound come into my presence is a beautiful experience – and I discovered (obvious in hindsight) that my earworm just stopped dead – temporarily.
Try it! I’d be interested to hear if it works for you – or not!
Isn’t this harmless?
Is there something wrong about songs tootling along? When you start Googling “are earworms…..”, the first suggestion while you type is “are earworms a sign of mental illness”.
This is pretty heavy stuff: the British Journal of General Practice reporting that “up to 98% of the Western population has experienced earworms” and can be “more pronounced or debilitating in patience with OCD”.
I don’t line up my socks, straighten cutlery or obsess over the jaunty angle of a painting but I carry some traits that help earworms hitchhike into my day. At the very minimum, they are consuming mental bandwidth and energy that could be conserved or spent profitably.
Do earworms stifle Creativity?
Abso-bloody-lutely. Simply put this mental bandwidth* is a precious resource. The more we are present – in the moment is our most creative and responsive state. Earworms steal from this and setup a loop that cramps out “presence”.
Two Oscar Wilde quotes make the case well:
“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”
You might think that an earworm is “misbehaving” but it’s really just behaving entirely predictably. I love that Wilde states that “taught” is a very important part of creating. It takes discipline, presence and space.
“The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”
An earworm aims for perfect imitation – we don’t need another copy of that song!
Some other antidotes can be found here and borrow from the BJGP** article above. But I don’t think they have the same self-awareness as what I suggest earlier.
- Chew some gum. Chewing gum could be a good way to get rid of earworms.
- Listen to the song. Listening to the song stuck in your head may bring closure and may help extract it.
- Listen to another song, chat or listen to talk radio.
- Do a puzzle.
- Let it go — but don’t try.
* Its quite possibly earworms are an artifact of the Default mode network and that’s another very big story in the discovery of how our western brain functions (or doesn’t).
** The BJGP article references a study that comes close to my proposed antidote. Personally I think that CBT is demanding a less natural and more ritualized way of dealing with earworms, in a sense they are pathologizing it:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is evidence-based and effective for OCD. Patients learn to replace dysfunctional thoughts like ‘These uncontrollable songs indicate I’m going crazy!’ with new, more accepting thoughts.
“Non-judgemental focus and acceptance form the basis for gradually shifting attention to other voluntary thoughts or emotions…..Yet, distraction is the most common self-help method for SSS and is often effective.”