earworm presson

Have you ever noticed that the tunes that get stuck in your head are almost always songs that you don’t really like?  You’re minding your own business, wandering the grocery store aisles searching for an obscure item, your eyes squinting to read faraway signage, your head looking side to side and up and down the shelves, pushing your cart slowly, and eventually trying to locate an illuminated exit sign and a Starbucks. 

And just before you finally find and corner a young store employee and ask where to find dry-roasted pomegranate seeds, a familiar song from the 80’s begins oozing through the store speakers, “…Shareef don’t like it, rock the Casbah, rock the Casbah…” and just like that you’re infected with an earworm.   

Over a century ago Germans coined the term “öhrwurm”—earworm—to describe the experience of a song stuck in the brain. Scientists call it other names, like “stuck tune syndrome” and “musical imagery repetition.”  

The means of infection 

It is widely believed (by mainly me) that songwriters, recording artists, and record labels conspire together to punish music lovers for having good taste.  I cannot come up with any other reason for the existence of “The Pina Colada Song.”  

There are many ways and places to be infected by an ear worm other than by listening to the radio, shopping at Kroger, or going to the wedding of a couple in their 50’s who hired a DJ for the reception.  Shortly after a trip to Disney World in 1984, I was forced to have “It’s a Small World” surgically removed from the storage file in my cerebral cortex.  

The invasive methods of a cure 

This brings me to the question of how to get rid of an öhrwurm. Delicate brain surgery is one way. It’s certainly effective but it is invasive, expensive, and most insurance companies don’t cover the procedure. It’s also risky when picking and poking at the memory center of the brain.  

For example, a man in Duluth, Minnesota had surgery to remove “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after telling his doctor, “It’s like my brain is a Magnavox record player and the needle is stuck on ‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.’  Doc, you’ve gotta do something!  I’m begging you. I’ve got a wife and kids who depend on me.”   

The delicate surgery was successful in extracting the looping song from his memory, but apparently the surgeon snipped the part of the hippocampus region that reminds a person to pay federal taxes annually from 2004 to 2018.   

A form of this extraction procedure was illustrated in the Jim Carrey film, “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” where a procedure was available to completely erase a period of time or a person of interest from one’s memory. This procedure is not FDA approved and can result in the permanent inability to remember where you left your keys… or your car.  

The inexpensive methods of a cure 

According to modern science there are two other less invasive ways of removing the 10-12 catchy but obnoxiously repetitive notes running laps around the track in your head.  One technique based on Presson’s Replacement Theory is to displace one annoying tune by replacing it with another tune equally or more annoying the original offender.  

For example, if you cannot exile “We will, we will rock you…” from your tortured mind then you can banish it by crowning another irritating ditty (such as “You put de lime in de coconut and you drink dem bot’ togedder…”)  and placing it on the throne. Of course, in some circles this is known as “jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”  

Recent research at the Presson Institute of Useless Information has found an alternative to the “pick your poison” method described above. It is known as “Presson’s Sharing is Caring strategy”, also known as the “Passing the Torch technique” and the “Tag, you’re it! method.” It basically works by transferring your earworm to an innocent and unsuspecting victim.  

For example, let’s say you can’t get “All my friends know the low rider…” out of your head.  For instant relief, simply approach a friend or a complete stranger and softly sing those words, perhaps adding “The low rider is a little higher…” for added effect.   

What happens next is a neurological marvel whereby the tune passes from your brain across an invisible bridge to your victim’s brain where it lodges and takes up residence. You’ve handled off the baton on the earworm relay, passed the torch to a new burden bearer, and now you’re free! Your mind is now cleansed and clear, joyfully liberated to think new thoughts and take in new information, able to enjoy through your five senses the wonderful world around you. That is until a few minutes later when you step into a Walgreens and hear “I’ve been through the desert with a horse with no name…”  

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage & family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com)  the author of multiple books, and a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He can be reached at [email protected].

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