The Germans call it an ohwurm (earworm).
In Portugal, it’s known as chiclete do ouvida (ear chewing gum).
And I call it just plain annoying!
I’m talking about that curious and maddening habit our brains have of holding on to a song or tune and repeating it over and over as if it were a broken record. (And yes I am dating myself by admitting that I actually even know what a record is.)
It turns out, according to some mathematicians at Case Western Reserve University, that earworms and other hard-to-forget things like, for example, thinking about work when you’re on vacation, have a biological reason for existing.
Science explains why it’s so hard to just relax
The new brain study, which appeared online recently in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, helps explain why it’s so darn hard to simply relax and think about nothing.
In order to think, your brain releases a chemical, called glutamate, that allows your thoughts to flow.
But to stop a thought or block information, your brain has to then release a second inhibiting chemical, this one called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Using sophisticated computer simulations, the mathematicians were able to produce a model of the energy usage of the neurons that transmit thoughts as well as the inhibiting neurons that put the brakes on them.
Stopping a thought takes effort and burns energy
It turns out that just as the process of thinking literally burns energy the process of stopping a thought burns quite a bit of energy as well.
In fact, apparently stopping a thought is akin to trying to stop a truck that is driving down a hill.
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 are here to stay.
But if you have a ditty stuck in your head right at this moment, I do have some good news. The website unhearit.com might have just the fix for your problem.
According to the website, “the latest in reverse-auditory-melodic-unstickification technology” can be used to force that tune right out of your head.
In other words, they override your current earworm with an equally catchy tune.
Of course, the only problem with that method is that you run the risk of having that new tune curled up in your ear for the rest of the day.
I’m hoping that the unstickification process works on the Andy Griffin theme song. Wish me luck.