An antidote for earworms

Self-talk

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.

Earworms

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!

Other antidotes

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.

      1. Chew some gum. Chewing gum could be a good way to get rid of earworms.
      2. Listen to the song. Listening to the song stuck in your head may bring closure and may help extract it.
      3. Listen to another song, chat or listen to talk radio.
      4. Do a puzzle.
      5. 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.

AND

“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.”

Marie Kondo for the creative spirit

The sensation that is Marie Kondo has the magic of old truths that ring true being repackaged in a new and exciting antidote to a very common malaise – clutter.

mariekondo

Thankfully the last decade has grown a number of movements attacking the very Western (primarily North American) conspicuous consumption and excess.

These movements like: Minimalism, Digital Nomadism, Veganism all call bullshit on a fixed abode filled to the brim with lettuce spinners, outdoor furniture, a garage full of unused adult toys (exercise equipment, not the others – ahem) and wardrobes full of once-worn clothes.

marie-kondo-spark-joy-featured-image-e1445355081720-846x715

The spark in Marie’s approach is that an object must “Spark Joy” to be worth keeping. The spirit of Marie’s method is an interesting observation that you don’t decide from some ideology or “ism” – you apply your own personal emotional response as your guide.

So too with creativity!

Debilitating Clutter?

Some people defer creative action because they feel paralysed by the clutter and disorder of their workspace. 

Others celebrate being surrounded by the tools of their trade. 

The photo of Einstein below is not one of a mundane scientist but a fabulously creative thinker, his writings outside science are also worth a read. Clearly clutter was not debilitating to this creator.

Einstein at his desk, Princeton, New Jersey, circa 1955
Einstein at his desk, Princeton, New Jersey, circa 1955

Recently, popular startup investor Naval Ravikant (@naval) and clear thinker, commented that he leaves books lying around the house and picks them up when the fancy takes him – skipping through the irrelevant cruft and not fearing that serendipity comes from outside himself. Perhaps conversely Paul Graham (@paulg) gets serendipity from the chaos of second-hand bookstores.

Is internal mental clutter the actual problem?

We fixate on the external, we blame external conditions. But if we look closer it’s not the external clutter but our internal response to the environment around us that is the big deal.

If Marie Kondo tidied Albert’s office it may look great but we may have less scientific breakthroughs! So it’s clear that Albert had an exceptional ability to focus and mentate with incredible clarity to the exclusion of the surrounding mayhem. Legend is that Nikola Tesla  would complete an invention in his mind before making the project manifest in the material world.

So these people are just a snapshot – others love to write books in noisy cafes. So it’s not JUST limited to geniuses.

Creative Clutter Exercise

Self-awareness** of what triggers Marie’s state of “Sparks Joy” within is the key here.
It’s an observation that is richer than dry mindfulness. Here’s a practice you can try:
  1. If you are a grub (you like chaos and mess). Get yourself to a library or even more grotesque – a conference room. Something that is as ordered or as sterile as you can find.
  2. If you are a neat-freak, get yourself to a cafe, a gym, a playground, a food-court in a shopping centre.
  3. Now get in touch with a sense of “joy”. Write, draw or code something around you that sparks that joy. Feel this inside.
  • Can you do this immersed in an environment that you would normally whinge about?
  • Do you have enough “self-awareness” to note that the environment is objective but your criticism is just a habitual response?
  • Can you take something from this opposite (“can you find beauty in a conference room”?,  “can you find stillness in a shopping center”? I assure you I’ve experienced both – I shit you not).
Try your art with 10,000s people going nuts at Singapore's Jewel Mall
Try your art with 10,000s people going nuts at Singapore's Jewel Mall

Any benefit?

Is it possible that you’ve now strengthened your creative muscle? That you are a more creative supple athlete?

Does Marie Kondo  inspire us to throw out some old mental clutter that has been stifling our creative spirit?

Have we used external circumstances to foster self-doubt and postphone “JUST DO IT”?

We’d love to hear, hit us up!

Postscript: Sense of Completion

Many people love, love, love the thrill of a good tidy-up.

The endorphin’s of an easily achieved goal can be an addictive distraction. We have unread books, messy bedrooms, unwashed plates – they are all awesome tools in getting a “hit” of the good stuff during the day – but don’t let them thieve from your creative schedule.

Make internal space for both.

** Everyone claims "self-awareness" but have no objective proof or realization that its an onion (a topic for another blog post)

Design! Not just the look and feel, but how it works.

The Look – it’s important – whether it’s a one-off unique and personal item, a fully crafted corporate brand or a family of diverse cross media pieces.

The Feel – it’s what stops me in the street to take a longer look, what makes me respect, empathise, love, read, keep. Every piece has to reach out and touch me.

The Work – 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. We all love and remember when the flash of inspiration is gifted to us. Respect it with good work.

And the Inspiration – read, walk, photograph, play, dance, meditate, visit, chat, laugh, give, share, draw, love, value, wish, live, smile, be open.

“A designer knows when she has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”
– inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery