Earworms: Why Do We Get Songs Stuck in Our Heads?: Background information when reading The Wrong Heaven

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The Wrong Heaven

by Amy Bonnaffons

The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons X
The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 256 pages
    Jan 2020, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Earworms: Why Do We Get Songs Stuck in Our Heads?

This article relates to The Wrong Heaven

Print Review

EarwormIn one of The Wrong Heaven's most memorable stories, the narrator feels she is gradually losing her mind when she cannot get the song "Hand in My Pocket" by Alanis Morissette out of her head. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as an "earworm." The word has a multi-strand history: Apparently, in ancient times, dried and ground earwigs were used to treat ear disease, and became known as auricula, which is the Latin name for the outer ear. This practice became misunderstood to mean that earwigs - or earworms as they were also called - crawled into people's ears. Later the definition of earworm shifted to refer to a moth larvae that burrowed into corn. At the same time, the German word for the insect earwig is ohrwurm - ohr ("ear") +‎ wurm ("worm") which is likely the inspiration for the modern English usage of the word to describe a song stuck in one's head--the earliest known reference in this context is in author Desmond Bagley's 1978 novel Flyaway.

Experts have not come to a precise consensus on the cause of earworms, but there are some elements of the phenomenon on which most agree. One scientist has noted that the songs most likely to get stuck in one's head tend to be "simple, repetitive, and have some mild incongruity." Another echoed that statement, explaining that songs that become earworms have a certain balance of predictability and a few novel elements. In a survey conducted by the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, 91% of responders reported being affected by an earworm about once a week. At the same conference two years later, researchers determined that the most likely songs to become earworms tend to be those with long notes and short intervals of pitch. A 2016 survey asked participants to name the songs most likely to get stuck in their heads, and the responses included Lady Gaga hits like "Bad Romance" and "Poker Face," along with classic rock standards like Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

The earworm phenomenon seems to cause or relate to activity in several regions of the brain, including the Heschl's gyri, a region associated with "auditory perception and musical memory" and the right inferior frontal gyrus, which is responsible for "pitch memory." Studies suggest that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be more likely than others to experience earworms, possibly due to their minds being particularly attuned to repetition. Research also demonstrates that earworms are "more likely to bite when the victim is tired, stressed, or idle."

Scientists believe that listening to a song in its entirety can help to dislodge the offending earworm fragment. According to the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, gum-chewing can decrease the likelihood of being infected with earworms in the first place. A more informal survey by writers at Psychology Today found that readers had success ridding themselves of earworms by engaging in verbally or otherwise mentally challenging tasks, like reciting a poem or solving a crossword puzzle.

Bonnaffons is certainly not the first writer to explore the concept of earworms. Mark Twain wrote about a catchy tune that got stuck in his head in an 1876 story called "A Literary Nightmare," and they also appear in stories by Arthur Clarke, E.B. White, and Fritz Leiber.

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Wrong Heaven. It originally ran in August 2018 and has been updated for the January 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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