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How to banish earworms from your brain

Although it seems maddeningly impossible, new research suggests we really can get rid of that nagging tune that endlessly plays over and over again in our head.  

For those of you who had Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in your head for most of 2012, or haven’t been able to stop your brain from playing “Master of the House” since seeing “Les Miserables” over the holidays, you’ll want to take note.

The trick is this: We can banish earworms from our brains by engaging in an absorbing task – something that is not too easy, but not too difficult, either.

Known as earworms, those songs that just won’t go away are a common type of intrusive thought, according to Ira Hyman, professor of psychology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Hyman and his research team conducted a series of experiments focused on learning more about why the earworm phenomenon and other intrusive thoughts are so persistent as well as what types of cognitive activities may help interrupt them.  Their research is published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. 

“We first did a general survey and asked people about their most recent experience with an intrusive song and found that the vast majority actually liked the songs that were in their heads,” Hyman told NBCNews.com.  The most repetitive songs were those that were well liked or popular at the time of the survey. 

The initial survey included about 300 participants of various age groups.  The other four studies included several hundred undergraduate college students. 

Hyman isn’t sure yet exactly what cognitive mechanism causes certain songs to stick, but he also found that once an earworm finds a home in the brain, it just seems to stay there. 

“After a while, it feels like it’s gone from conscious awareness, but suddenly, it’s back in there again.  It’s almost waiting in the wings of consciousness for the stage in your mind to empty,” Hyman explained. 

Earworms are more likely to wriggle in when people are bored or engaged in activities that are either somewhat mindless or very complicated.

“If you’re doing something that’s really automatic, such as walking or riding a bike, and there’s a lot of room for a song to play in your head, it will probably come back,” he said.

At the other extreme, performing a complex task that may be too difficult to complete may also leave more room for the earworm to wiggle its way in.

Study subjects attempted puzzles of varying complexity, and those who worked on more difficult ones reported experiencing the earworm phenomenon more frequently. 

“You want to find the point at which you’re pretty engaged in a task so there’s not much room or consciousness for music to be playing in your head,” Hyman suggested.  

The earworm-busting activity would be different for different people, Hyman explains. "For some people, it may be to read a book, or play a video game, or getting engaged in sports," he says. "It has to be something that fully engages the consciousness for that person."

But here's the bad news: “There’s a good chance it will disappear, but it may come back later,” he says. And if it does, Hyman has another suggestion.

“Listen to something else,” he said.

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