WWU researcher investigates why certain songs get stuck in our heads

Contrary to the belief that it’s only the most obnoxious or annoying songs that get stuck in our heads, Western Washington University psychology professor Ira Hyman has found that it’s the songs people know and like that most often become intrusive.

In research conducted with his students at Western, Hyman also found that these intrusive songs, or “earworms,” often are triggered by environmental cues – such as hearing words that remind us of the song’s lyrics – and were most likely heard recently. In addition, if a song continues to play in someone’s head immediately after he or she stops listening to it, the song is likely to disappear but then return within 24 hours.

“It’s interesting how these songs can go away but then keep coming back,” Hyman said.

Hyman’s research shows that snippets of songs are most likely to get stuck in our heads – and to return repetitively – both during periods of low cognitive load (when walking, for example) and during periods of high cognitive load, such as when doing schoolwork. But during periods requiring more complete cognitive engagement, songs are less likely to return, Hyman found.

Many similarities exist between these earworms and our minds wandering or being pestered with intrusive thoughts, Hyman said. Based on his study, Hyman found that our minds tend to wander both when we’re engaged in easy, automatic tasks and when we’re stressed, engaged in challenging work or reading difficult passages, for example. The less successfully our brains completely grasp the task at hand, the more our minds are free to wander and be invaded by intrusive songs or other intrusive thoughts, Hyman said. If the mind is fully engaged, there may be fewer cognitive resources remaining for other thoughts, he said.

“If we can understand how intrusive songs work, it should help us understand how having an intrusive thought stuck in your head can be controlled as well,” Hyman said.

In his research thus far, Hyman and his team have found that earworm cycles are easy to start and to manipulate. Further research involves investigating how cognitive load during exposure and subsequent activities influences the onset of intrusive song cycles and whether attempts to suppress a song will make the song more likely to return. By investigating these intrusive songs, Hyman thinks he can learn much about why intrusive thoughts occur and how to control intrusive thought cycles.

Co-authors of the research, published online in December in the journal “Applied Cognitive Psychology,” are recent WWU graduates Naomi K. Burland, Hollyann M. Duskin, Megan C. Cook, Christina M. Roy, Jessie C. McGrath and Rebecca F. Roundhill.

For more information on this research, contact Ira Hyman, a professor in the WWU Department of Psychology, at 360-650-3519 or ira.hyman@wwu.edu.