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.”

Balance

This is not new. As with everything in life, the cycles keep moving – the good times pass, but so too do the challenging ones. Over the years, this little diagram keeps popping up, in slightly different forms each time, but with basically the same help.

In some forms it divides into 4 elements – fire, water, earth and air. In others, it is action, emotions, structure and wisdom. Each of the four elements should be in balance… in a perfect life…  in a perfect world!

Over the past while I’d been feeling a bit lost, unproductive, my mind awash with ideas but not quite able to get a start on anything, resulting in a feeling of time passing by without realising anything.

I happened upon the four elements again, sandwiched in a miscellaneous folder, and relooked at it. Rarely lacking in fire/action, or water/emotions, what lit up my realisation was earth/structure – my nemesis! Yes, planning. For reasons I still don’t understand, I feel that planning robs me of my freedom. My brain knows this is rubbish, even my experiences know this is rubbish. Yet tucked away snuggly and safely somewhere in my being, it resides.

So with the warmth of fresh realisation, I started to write the important things down (important for now, anyway).  Just five loose categories, ones which cover my everyday needs as well as my creative and physical needs. Almost immediately I started to pull away from the stuckness I had felt, feeling an accomplishment of sorts. Big goals, bite-sized actions and steps. My first bite-sized step!

Relook at the 4 elements diagram. Where are you strong? Where are you out of balance? Start with one small step. Good luck.

10 ways smart people stay calm

I’ve just come back from a couple of days in the country – a complete change of pace, demand, activity … even got a few hours of forest bathing – bliss.  I think for me, this ticked off #1 and #4 in this article I’m sharing about staying calm and staying on top of the stress.

You can preempt much of your stress with these vital practices.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90 percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.

As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.

Here’s the first 4
1. They Appreciate What They Have
2. They Avoid Asking “What If?”
3. They Stay Positive
4. They Disconnect

For all ten ways with explanations as well as the complete article and a great  Performance vs Stress diagram head to  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/10-ways-smart-people-stay-calm_us_59134c00e4b0e070cad70b0b