Stuck on Mary Lou

17 Aug

             Over the past couple of days, every once in a while,   music from the song “Time after Time”,  spontaneously  starts playing in my head. It is like having a pilot light constantly flickering in your brain while you just wait  for it to flare up. Except for the Goonies and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I was never much of a  Cyndi Lauper fan, so  I only   know  two lines from this song but they keep repeating themselves.

            My wife Diane seems especially susceptible to the works of Ricky Nelson.  Whenever she plays Ricky Nelson songs as the background music at the bookstore she manages, she gets stuck on “Hello Mary Lou” for days.  At least it’s not “Garden Party”.  

            Neuroscientists call this phenomena an “earworm”, which  is the literal translation of the German term, Ohrwurm, which simply means a song that gets stuck in your head. Over 98%  of Americans  report  having this experience. One-third of respondents in a international survey said  they have earworms every day and  90% said they occur  at least  once a week.   

            As early as 1876,  Mark Twain wrote a  tongue-in-cheek article for the Atlantic Monthly,  in which he claims he acquired  an earworm from a newspaper jingle. Some of the addictive verses from the jingle were:   

                                    “Conductor, when you receive a fare,
                                    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

                                    Punch, brothers!  Punch with care!
                                    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.”

This  jingle   drove  Twain crazy,  until he jokingly describes how he passed it on to an unfortunate acquaintance. It is a good thing he died 54 years before Walt Disney  opened his   “It’s a Small World” attraction—  Twain would have never survived it.   

            In 1997 humorist  Dave Barry wrote the “Book of Bad Songs”, which summarizes his  survey of the world’s worst songs.  Barry contends that bad song lyrics and  jingles for products that no longer exist, are the two things that we are most likely to remember,  while our ATM passwords and the names of our children are assigned relatively  low priority by our perverse memory.   Barry warns that his book might even “put bad songs into your head”. He suggests that the book  is best deployed as a  psychological weapon  and given to enemies.

        I believe that I once had the winner of Barry’s worse song survey,MacArthurPark, stuck in my head for a week. I distinctly remember humming about a cake left out in the rain and how long it took to bake it.

            Earworm songs are always familiar to the victim and usually are not   perceived as a significant problem.  However,  in a 2005 survey 7.5%  of people did  report  having their least favorite song stuck in their head on occasion. In this more recent study, Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart ” replacedMacArthurParkas the most despised song.

            Most of the time earworms end within a day or so, but they are thought to be more difficult to suppress by people  who are most into  music.  Women and men experience earworms with about the same frequency, but they seem to last a little longer for women.   Usually the songs are a catchy tune  that you may have liked at some point in the past, but they may become highly annoying from the sheer repetition. They especially seem to appear when people are alone and bored.   

            Earworms are a type of intrusive involuntary imagery, which can include spontaneous   pictures, smells, and tastes.  Auditory intrusions, however,  seem to be more common than those from other sensory modalities. Some scientists believe that earworms may be a mild form of auditory hallucinations. Others think they may be the normal side effect of the memory consolidation process. Famous neurologist Oliver Sacks theorizes that they may just be the natural consequence of having our brains  constantly  bombarded by music.

            James Kellaris, a marketing professor  at theUniversityofCincinnati, has extensively studied earworms  and views  them as   a “cognitive itch.”   Kellaris, believes that certain music has  unusual qualities, such as repetitiveness, simplicity, or unexpectedness,  that hook  the brain’s attention. The brain tries to process this irritating stimulation by repeating it, which only makes matters worse–  like scratching an insect bite. However, since virtually any song may be an earworm for some people,  Kellaris now believes that the phenomenon probably results from an interaction of song properties and individual traits.

            Kellaris conducted a 2003 survey to determine his own  earworm “Playlist From Hell” and he  included commercial jingles, as well as songs. After idiosyncratic earworms,  the  most common ones cited were:  1. Chili’s (Baby Back Ribs), 2. Who Let the Dogs Out?,  3. We Will Rock You, 4. Kit-Kat bar jingle (Gimme a break), 5. TheMission Impossible Theme, 6. YMCA,  7. Whomp, There It Is, 8. The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and  9. It’s a Small World After All.

            People have adopted a variety of different techniques to eliminate or suppress earworms including; substituting a new tune,  passing it on,  distraction,  listening to the earworm, discussing it, or simply  waiting for it to pass. I looked up the lyrics to “Time After Time” and was surprised to find that the verses I was hearing in my head weren’t exactly the same as the actual song. I also listened to the song, but it didn’t go away, although the lyrics mysteriously corrected themselves. Some people believe that the more attention you give to an earworm, the more resistant it is to leaving.

            Kellaris’ website says that there is a common myth that some tunes (like the Flintstones’  Theme) can serve as an “eraser  song” that can eliminate earworms. It may distract the individual, but there is no evidence of any true “eraser effect”. And there is even the danger the eraser song will become a brand new earworm, itself.  

            I don’t believe learning about earworms has helped me at all, but  “Time After Time” has finally  faded from my brain. I am not sure how I did it,   but  something, (from the, town ofBedrock),  is now telling me that, “I’ll never have that recipe again, oh nooo!”         

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