Earworms

The earwig, for those who didn’t grow up with them around, is a long, thin, brown insect, between one half and three quarters of an inch long.  They’re kind of flat and move with a sort of undulating crawl.

Two things distinguish them.

First, they have an enormous (in proportion to their size) pair of forceps growing out of their tails.  As a kid, I can remember being terrified they’d bite me with them if I tried to pick them up.  But second, and far more important, everyone knew that they were called “earwigs” because they could crawl into your ears while you were asleep and burrow right into your brain.

Actually, although that legend is so old it goes back to Saxon days, they don’t really do any such thing.  Earworms, on the other hand, really do burrow right into your brain and set up housekeeping.

What is an earworm?

It’s not an insect or some variety of living parasite.  Instead, an earworm is one of those horrible song phrases or jingles that take up residence in your brain and endlessly repeat themselves.

Personally, I was infected with this dreadful ailment at a young age and fate has conspired to periodically torment me with severe outbreaks ever since.

Once upon a time I worked at Disneyland.  As part of our orientation, they insisted we go on a number of the rides.  No problem.  Having practically grown up in Disneyland, I liked almost all the rides, including those for the little kiddies.

Except one.  Every visiting relative I had wanted to visit Disneyland and go on “It’s a Small World.”  First time, not too bad.  Second time, a bit grating.  Third time, intolerable.  From then on, I’d send them in without me.

So, naturally, our orientation included “It’s a Small World,” and no amount of begging and pleading would get me off the hook.  Just to prove that irony rules our universe, a short way into the ride, it broke down.  The boat stopped moving and all the dolls soon stopped their little dances.

At which point, I learned something awful: The ride might break down, but that bloody song never, ever stopped.

For endless weeks after that, I had the “It’s a Small World” earworm eating away at my brain.  I darned near went nuts.

Researchers claim that 98% of us have earworm experiences, so I imagine you know exactly what I’m talking about. [Interestingly, they claim that musicians and women are more susceptible to earworms and are bothered by them more.  Go figure.]

So what do the researchers say about the kind of song phrases get stuck in your head?  Well, obviously ones that have exactly the same characteristics as jingles: They are catchy, often simple, and fairly short.  But, most importantly, they are circular.  That is, for some reason the end of the phrase leads the human brain right back to the beginning.

Here’s a few examples they’ve collected.  One of the most commonly reported earworms is “We Will, We Will Rock You” by Queen.  That refrain is certainly simple, it’s circular, and it’ll stick in the brain like epoxy.  So Queen gets a point.  But they say ABBA is the group that is the acknowledged champion at creating earworms.  If you’ve ever found yourself repetitively humming “Dancing Queen” or, even worse, “Fernando,” then you’ve been sucked into this Swedish trap.

What else do we know?

An earworm doesn’t have to be terribly sophisticated.  One day you might find yourself doing yard work with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” looping endlessly along with the rhythm of your job.   On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be that simplistic.  One of my favorite public embarrassments is to find myself audibly humming the theme from “The Ride of the Valkyries” over and over again.

Like some allergies, earworms aren’t necessarily seasonal.  But, just speaking personally, Christmas time inflicts an amazing collection of earworm carols.  A single listen to Bing Crosby doing “Little Drummer Boy” can infect me for the entire season.  “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is almost as bad.  And God help you if you ever get one of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” looping around.

So here you have a nearly universal human phenomenon that has actually attracted a certain amount of academic research.  Surely by now we know something scientific about earworms?  Their life cycle, infectious mechanisms, and reproduction?  Something serious, with academic papers replete with words like axons or dendrites and full of subordinate clauses in the passive voice?

Well, no.  I’m afraid this is one of those universals so trivial that no one wants to spend much serious research lab time (and money) on.  Besides, how could you make a profit off it?

Okay.  But even with anecdotal research, since this is a universal human syndrome, surely they’ve collected a ton of folk remedies and heuristic cures.  That is, they must know how to get those things out of our heads.

Right?

Let me put it this way.  I’ve read up on lots of tried and true methods to get earworms out of your brain.  I’ve tried a number of them, but the only guaranteed method I’ve ever discovered to get Song A out of my brain is to have it replaced by Song B.  Not the recommended solution.

But how about just naturally letting them die out?  Certainly they’ve determined the natural lifespan of earworms?

Don’t get your hopes up.  Christmas was quite a while ago and it’s been weeks since I saw that performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And at this very moment I’m alternating between

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?

And that immortal bit of caroling,

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful…

The sober, scientific truth is these damned things are vampires.  Not only do they live forever, but even if you think you’ve killed one off, one reminiscent note and it will rise from the dead and infest your belfry…FOREVER!

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