Scratching that "Cognitive Itch"

in Arts + Media
October 10th, 2011

What comes to mind when you think of Friday? Friends. A night off from work. Movies. Fun. Rebecca Black? Yikes. I don’t mean to remind you of such a low point in the history of American pop-culture but there is, in fact, a small amount of useful information to be extracted from the phenomenon that is Rebecca Black. Why did her music spread like an epidemic through the minds of millions of teens and adults worldwide? This event can be loosely related to what the Germans like to call an öhrwurm.

The term öhrwurm literally translates in English to “earworm”, and can be described as that inescapable occurrence of getting a song stuck in your head for an hour, a day, or even months at a time. The term is misleading in that the repetition of music does not occur in the ear but within the brain. For an experience that is so familiar to most people there is still much unknown as to how and why one contracts this stuck song syndrome.

One man that has put some time into the issue is Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati. He coined the term “cognitive itch” to describe his theory of the instance of getting a song stuck in one’s head because the only way to satisfy the feeling is to repeat the song over and over inside the mind (kind of like scratching an itch). He has found that there are certain kinds of music and songs that tend to induce an unusual reaction in the auditory cortex. This extra attention that is paid to a small part of a song produces the “itch”, which then starts the vicious cycle of repetition. Simple songs that are catchy and repetitive are found to be the one’s most often plaguing the mind, as well as songs with unpredicted rhythm changes. This is why “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “Hey Jude” will continue to live on decades after their original heyday in American culture.

Research so far has been unable to uncover the exact biological mechanisms of this phenomenon. A recent study done at Dartmouth University, however, has shed some light on not only how the auditory cortex (the area where the brain processes most of the external auditory stimuli it receives) may be involved in producing this odd effect, but also on some other areas of the brain and how they are involved in producing the “earworm” as well. Using magnetic resonance imaging techniques it was found that when a patient is exposed to a catchy tune with some parts of the song missing here and there, the auditory cortex does not just shut down or anything during these silent gaps. In fact, if the song is recognizable the brain will fill in the missing pieces and effectively continue the song even when it is not playing! The brain’s ability to retain auditory signatures makes it possible for us to preserve “many structural and temporal properties of auditory stimuli” such as songs. This discovery indicates that the auditory cortices of the brain are most likely involved in the occurrence of earworms. Besides the primary and secondary auditory cortices though, blood flow has been found to increase in such other areas as the primary motor cortex, frontal operculum, insula, posterior cerebellum, and basal ganglia when the brain is exposed to “novel melody” or monotonic vocalization. When a repeated melody is heard, there is also additional stimulation in the planum polare (BA 38). Further study of these brain regions has the potential to reveal more about not just the mystery behind earworms, but also about the complex memory systems of the mind.

It has also been shown that there are people who are more prone to earworms than others based on gender, physical characteristics, and personality. For example, women are more likely to be affected by a stuck song for a longer period of time than men. Supposedly left-handed people and people with anxiety disorders like OCD are more likely to catch an earworm, and so are people who are more musically inclined (most likely because they listen to more music than the average person). So if you are a left-handed, obsessive compulsive female musician and just can’t get rid of that annoying background music that’s been in your head all day, try a few of these tactics: turn on the radio, play a different song for yourself (on one of the many instruments you have at hand), listen to that song, or try to pass the misery along to someone else.

The “earworm” phenomenon, and the ability for a simple melody to last months, or even years inside the mind is just another one of the many fascinating aspects of the brain. Because of this ability, I am stuck here with Britney Spears on replay in my head at the moment. But, hey, at least it’s not “Friday.”

And in case you don’t have an earworm of your own here is a video that will give you a few (and maybe a laugh too…)

Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a Natural History of Intrusive Thoughts – British Journal of Psychology

The Song System of The Human Brain – Cognitive Brain Research

Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Your Head? – Word Detective

Science of Music – Exploratorium

Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Your Head? – The Straight Dope

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One Comment on Scratching that "Cognitive Itch"

  • I really enjoy playing minecraft. This is truly a game that allows everyone to express his or her creativeness. Now i am so addicted to it!

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