The Germans call it an ohwurm (earworm).
In Portugal, it’s known as chiclete do ouvida (ear chewing gum).
And me? I just call it plain old annoying!
I’m talking about that curious habit our brains have of holding onto a song and repeating it over and over as if it were a broken record. (Yes, I am old enough to actually remember what a record is.)
Experts say around 90 percent of us get stuck with an earworm at least once a week.
According to researchers at Case Western Reserve University, earworms and other hard-to-forget thoughts or snippets of information—like, for example, thinking about work on the weekend—have a biological reason for existing.
Stopping a thought burns energy too
The research, published in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, helps us understand how switching our brains off and thinking about, well, nothing, is so hard for us to do.
When you think your brain releases a chemical, called glutamate, which allows your thoughts to flow. But to turn around and switch a thought off, or block information, your brain has to pump out a second chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Using complex computer simulations, the researchers produced a model of the energy the human brain uses to both transmit thoughts, as well as the put the brakes on them.
Experts say switching off thoughts is hard work
It turns out that just as the process of thinking literally burns a bunch of energy, the process of stopping a thought burns quite a bit too. So, in other words, not thinking is just plain hard work, and an energy waster as far as your brain is concerned.
That means that earworms, and other annoyingly persistent thoughts, are here to stay.
But if you have a tune stuck in your head right now, I have some good news. The website unhearit.com might be able to help. According to the website, by using “the latest in reverse-auditory-melodic-unstickification technology” they can help force that tune right out of your head.
In other words, they play you an equally catchy tune to help you forget your current earworm. Which is a great solution, as long as the new tune doesn’t set up shop in your ear for the rest of the day.
I’m hoping their unstickification process works on Queen’s “We will rock you,” which is currently tacking up entirely too much space in my head. But if it doesn’t I have a few more tricks to try that could work for you too.
Tricks to stop that thought in its tracks
Next time you’re thoughts are stuck in a loop, and you feel like pulling out your hair, don’t. Instead try one of these easy—and fun—distraction techniques (they’re great for overcoming anxiety too!):
1. Take a breath:
This trick doesn’t require a specific deep breathing technique to work. Just close your eyes, and take as deep a breath as you can, filling your belly, not just your lungs. Let it out slowly, and repeat until you feel calm.
Looking for something more specific? Try the 4-square breathing technique which will help you focus on breathing and relaxing instead of that thought you can’t let go of.
- Slowly inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
- Hold that breathe for a count of 4.
- Exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
Try picturing that annoying thought as a red fog that you breathe out of your body with every exhale, and before you know it you’ll have pressed the pause button.
2. Sing a song:
Grab your hairbrush, stand in front of the bathroom mirror and belt out a song at the top of your lungs. You get extra points for donning a costume.
Just make sure it’s not an earworm you’re trying to get rid of. Something you know by heart, but that isn’t particularly catchy, such as the national anthem, works best.
You’ll likely end up laughing, a lot which is good (see #5). And by the time you’ve finished the song, chances are you’ll have forgotten all about “the thought.”
3. Make a move:
Making a move can mean a 10 minute walk around the block, dancing around the dining room table, or trying on a new yoga stance. As long as it gets your blood pumping it will cause your brain to release feel-good chemicals called endorphins.
Endorphins naturally cause you to feel happy and relaxed, which can help you forget all about the thought that’s been stuck on instant replay.
4. Pet a pet:
Petting and interacting with pets is a proven way to slash stress, which means “fur therapy” can also be an effective way to let that thought that’s got you tied up in a tense knot slip away. A round of fetch with Fido or feather on a string with Socks could be all it takes to distract yourself enough to send the earworm packing.
No pet of your own? No problem. Simply borrow a friend’s pooch, or head over to the local animal shelter and volunteer for an hour. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up taking a Fluffy or Mittens home with you.
That old saying about laughter being the best medicine has been around for so long because it’s true. Experts say when you let loose with a real belly laugh your stress hormones dip and your oxygen levels spike, a recipe for relaxation.
And let’s face it, it’s nearly impossible to do anything else when you’re doubled over in laughter, including taking that thought you’re trying to get rid of for yet another spin around your brain.
So pop your favorite comedy into the DVR, or head over to YouTube and cue up some silly pet videos, and laugh that earworm or annoying thought right out of existence.