An effective solution to get rid of earworms, those annoying tunes that keep on re-playing in never ending loops in our heads, has been found by a team of scientists at the University of Reading, UK. Published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology the results of the research show the best way to block obsessive melodies is neither to read a good novel nor solve complex anagrams but, simply, to chew gum.
As much widespread as frustrating, earworms are experienced by over 99% of individuals (J. Kellaris) and often source of great stress for many. The part of our brain that processes auditory information – the auditory cortex – is triggered when we listen to a song so, when we hear a familiar tune again, our mind fills in the rest, repeatedly. This would suggest tune wedgies "may be a form of involuntary musical memory" explains Dr Philip Beaman, the academic leading the research. Getting rid of earworms is tricky but the academic believes the solution is to be found in gum; the act of gum-chewing is very similar to irrelevant sub-vocalisation, which has proved to degrade short term memory performance as well as auditory images.
Not only "auditory images [are] less vivid when [individuals are] engaged in tasks" loading on their inner voice, but irrelevant sub-vocalisation, like chewing, reduces the repetition of sticky tunes, explains Beaman. To test this theory the team carried out three separate experiments, in which participants were exposed to catchy tunes while either chewing or not chewing gum. Experiment 1 evaluated the effect of bubble-gum on the conscious appearance of musical images, as well as the recurrence of earworms once attempts to suppress them had ceased; participants exposed to a popular melody were first asked not to think about the music, and then let free to do so. Predictably, results proved gum-chewing reduced the number of times the tune was consciously experienced in both music suppression and overt expression condition. Experiment 2, which looked at the actual ‘hearing’ of music in participants’ heads, also demonstrated the reducing effect of gum-chewing upon the music-hearing phenomenon. Last but not the least, Experiment 3 was designed to assess whether the effects of gum were common to any kind of motor activity, or specific to the speech articulators only; to this end, partakers were asked to either chew some gum or tap with their fingers at the beat of a novel melody. Interestingly, the outcome showed that motor activity per se (tapping) was less effective than sub-vocal actions (chewing) in moderating the appearance of earworms.
The first to look at gum in the context of voluntary as well as involuntary musical imagery, this study demonstrates chewing gum interferes with the experience of hearing musical recollections therefore can be recommended as an aid to get rid of earworms. So, next time we get stuck with a tune, let’s forget intricate anagrams and get some bubble-gum instead.
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C. Philip Beaman, Kitty Powell, Ellie Rapley. Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum! The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Published Online April 21 2015. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1034142