We’ve all been victims of the earworm: a catchy piece of music gets stuck in our heads and no matter what we do, we can’t seem to dislodge it. Earworms are incredibly common; 90% of us suffer from earworms at least once a week. And while they’re not actually harmful, they can be really distracting. In one survey, a third of participants classified their earworms as “unpleasant,” which is a nice way of saying “severely annoying.” Some people claim they can control this phenomenon, but most of us just have to suffer through it. But fear not! Researchers have come to the rescue with a scientifically backed earworm prevention weapon: bubble gum.
Yes, scientists at the University of Reading, UK say the best way to treat earworms is to chew gum.
Why we get earworms in the first place isn’t entirely clear, but one likely culprit is the brain’s auditory cortex, which processes sound. Dr. Philip Beaman, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of Reading, says the brain’s tendency to repeat a familiar tune “may be a form of involuntary musical memory.” One proven method for degrading short-term memory is to repeat a random word over and over again in your head (the official term for this is “irrelevant sub-vocalisation”). Previous studies have shown that “mouthing something random like the first few letters of the alphabet while looking at a list of words makes most people forget 1/3 to 1/2 of the words on the list,” explains Deborah Netburn at the Los Angeles Times. The act of chewing gum has a similar effect, the new research suggests, and “therefore can be recommended as an aid to get rid of earworms.”
If you’re not a fan of gum, you could also pick up a puzzle book when you can’t shake an annoying song. Previous research suggests solving a tough anagram or sudoku can help. “The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge,” Dr. Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University, told the Telegraph. “If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.”
You don’t want something too difficult or your mind will wander, and you don’t want something too easy. “It is like a Goldilocks effect – it can’t be too easy and it can’t be too hard, it has got to be just right,” Hyman says.
Others fight off earworms with another song, psychologist Vicky Williamson told NPR. “Some people think that the British national anthem sung quite slow is good for getting rid of earworms,” she says.
In case you were wondering, some of the most common earworms, according to researchers, are: “Single Ladies” by Beyonce; “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga; and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. I’d also like to add “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen.