Sometimes my wife complains of an earworm--a song that's stuck on a repeating loop in her head. I respond by loudly playing the Lexx theme song a lot. Later, she'll say that that song is stuck in her head. So I'll loudly play "Joxer the Mighty" a few dozen times.* Then, for reasons that are unclear, she stops telling me what she's thinking. Presumably the problem has gone away.
Why does my brilliant method work? Now researchers led by music psychologist Dr. Ira Hyman of Western Washington University have found out. If you want to get rid of an earworm, you need to use all of your working memory on another task, such as solving a puzzle:
Researchers claim the best way to stopping the phenomenon, sometimes known as earworms – where snippets of a catchy song inexplicably play like a broken record in your brain – is to solve some tricky anagrams.
This can force the intrusive music out of your working memory, they say, allowing it to be replaced with other more amenable thoughts. [...]
“The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge,” said Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University who conducted the research. “If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.
“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resource, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing. [...]
“Verbal tasks like solving anagrams or reading a good novel seem to be very good at keeping earworms out,” said Dr Hyman, who now hopes to examine whether similar techniques could be used to prevent other intrusive thoughts caused by anxiety or obsessiveness.
*Message: I care.