Shakin’ off the Earworm

ear worm

In the past decade, the field of neuroscience has produced amazing scientific breakthroughs. Researchers have learned how to control micro RNA, help individuals achieve impulse control, and change behavior with non-invasive brain stimulation. Recently, two MIT scientists successfully implanted a memory that NEVER HAPPENED into a mouse’s brain. But despite all these incredible advances, I’m curious why researchers ignore a condition that plagues 90% of the population at least once a week.

I am speaking, of course, of the earworm.

For my entire life, I have suffered from a recurring case of this auditory MRSA. From the moment The Beatles urged me to Twist and Shout, I have been afflicted with this disorder. So my question for neuroscientists, if you are able to put Visions of That Which Never Happened into a tiny rodent’s noggin, why, oh why, can you not find a way to remove Meghan Trainor from mine?

Because I’m All About That Bass.

If you happen to be a member of that 10% of the population who has never experienced this wretched condition, rest assured it starts innocently enough. You hear a catchy tune with a beat even a one-celled organism in a petri dish could replicate. You might hum along, tap your foot, and bob your head to the upbeat melody. But before you know it, this insidious ditty has taken up residence in your cerebrum and intermittently causes your hammer, anvil, and stirrup to spontaneously break into a line dance as Achy Breaky Heart plays in a continuous loop in your brain.

This very real, and often debilitating, condition has its own WebMD page. When British scientists examined this vexing problem, they identified specific characteristics of songs prone to burrowing in your skull. Turns out there is a magic formula guaranteed to produce a song that is not only an earworm, but a chart topping hit. These mutant melodies are chock full of long notes and closely spaced musical intervals which are apparently the equivalent of an express train down the ear canal to your gray matter. Researchers also noted that simplicity is a critical element. Which explains why any parent who has ever taken their child to Disneyland wakes up in a cold sweat as the strains of It’s a Small World play mercilessly in their melon.

Researchers call it musical imagery. I call it auditory hell.

But the earworm is not a modern-day phenomenon. According to Oliver Sacks, an early manuscript referred to certain tunes as “the piper’s maggot.” Clearly, this was a direct reference to The Lion Sleeps Tonight, YMCA, or anything by Frankie Valli.

Some of my earliest aural invaders were courtesy of the Archies, Herman’s Hermits, and The Dave Clark Five. Although Sugar, Sugar routinely pummeled my neurons, it was comforting to know that at any moment I would be Glad All Over and Into Something Good in fairly short order. In junior high, I Woke Up in Love This (and every) Morning thanks to The Partridge Family, but mainly David Cassidy. The entire ABBA catalogue took up residence in my cranium for the better part of a decade.

Don’t even make me bring up Bananarama.

Some earworms are tolerable. After I these years, I know whose phone number is 867-5309. My cochlea can still Bust a Move. But there’s one earworm that makes me willing to plunge a Bic deep into my inner ear if it would get the Baha Men to stop asking Who Let the Dogs Out.

Long ago, Gloria Gaynor assured me that I Will Survive. And that is true. Because thanks to Taylor, I can Shake It Off.

photo courtesy of 123RF

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