The music world is filled with songs that make their way into your head and can’t seem to find a way out. Let’s explore some theories about what causes melodies to stick to your mind—and learn a few ways to get them unstuck!
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The Auditory Cortex
• Talking and listening come from the auditory cortex, the part of your brain responsible for identifying and storing auditory memories. The auditory cortex is where ear worms tend to be most active.
• A Dartmouth study found that the part of the auditory cortex that activates when you hear a song lights up when you just imagine hearing the song.
• In the same study, subjects listened to a song that was abruptly muted for a few seconds. MRI scans showed that the auditory cortex remained active after the music stopped for unfamiliar songs.
• Their brains actually continued singing and filling in the missing gaps of sound.
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Ear worms may actually be a form of emotional regulation. People generally feel more positive emotions after having an ear worm than they did before.
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How They Get Stuck
• Earworms usually develop after many repetitive listens.
• Even if you haven’t heard the song for years, if at some point you heard it over and over, it probably made a home in your auditory cortex.
• You are more likely to pick up an ear worm when you’re doing something mindless or routine, like vacuuming or taking a shower.
• Those with high levels of neuroticism are more likely to get songs stuck in their heads.
• Seeing someone, being in a certain situation, or hearing a similar beat can cause your brain to resurrect ear worms past.
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Digging Out the Worm
How can you get rid of your earworm?
• Listen to the song from beginning to end.
• Sing “I’m a Little Teapot” to yourself.
• Distract your mind with a riddle, crossword, or Sudoku puzzle.
• Recite a poem.
• Shout in your head (or out loud if no one will mind).
• If it’s truly becoming a bother, don’t panic—most ear worms worm their way out within 24 hours.
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