This post is also available in Dutch.
The earworm, a phenomenon that you are likely to be familiar with. You listen to a song on the radio and it is still stuck in your head by the end of the day. Recent research shows that chewing gum can help alleviate this. Try it out for yourself.
Image by Roselyne
Some of you may have seen the Pixar movie “Inside Out”. Riley, the main character in the movie, often suffered from earworms, usually it was the song from a gum commercial. She would start to hear this annoying song whenever two little blue creatures sent a recollection of the song to her brain. Kidding, that is definitely not how it works. Although, to be honest, neuroscientists have not completely figured out how this phenomenon happens. It’s a coincidence that Pixar chose to feature a song from a gum commercial because recent research suggests that chewing gum can help get rid of earworms. How does this work?
Chewing gum against earworms
The idea behind this research is that when you have an earworm you are unconsciously singing along in your head. This activates the planning of motor movements in the jaw as if you were singing along out loud. Now, if you chew gum, then your jaw muscles are kept busy which makes it difficult to unconsciously sing along. This leads to the disappearance of the earworm.
How was this idea tested? Participants first listened to a refrain of the song “Play Hard” by David Guetta. In the subsequent 3 minutes, they were told to think of anything but that particular song. Whenever they thought of the song they had to indicate this with a button press. Participants who chewed gum in these 3 minutes thought of the song less often than when they were engaged in another activity (like tapping on the table with their fingers). It remains an open question whether this also works for songs without lyrics where you just hum along in your head.
Puzzles against earworms
You can also try other means of distraction. Be careful though, don’t choose another song to do so. Chances are high that you would simply replace the old earworm with a new one. Solving puzzles might be a better option. When your (working) memory is occupied, it is harder for the earworm to reach the conscious level. Although, try not to pick a puzzle that is too difficult because your brain might ‘give up’ and you’re back to having room for that earworm. Try, for instance, solving anagrams. Which word is hidden in ’emarrow’? That’s right, ‘earworm’! Solving puzzles like these (verbal ones, at a medium difficulty level) are probably better than nonverbal ones like Sudoku. This would support the benefits of chewing gum because verbal puzzles occupy the motor planning of your jaw muscles.
Written by Claudia Lüttke. Claudia is a PhD student who investigates how our senses work together. Read more about Claudia’s research in an earlier blog from Donders Wonders here (in Dutch).