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  • Have you ever been waiting in line at the grocery store,

  • innocently perusing the magazine rack, when a song pops into your head?

  • Not the whole song, but a fragment of it that plays and replays

  • until you find yourself unloading the vegetables in time to the beat.

  • You've been struck by an earworm, and you're not alone.

  • Over 90% of people are plagued by earworms at least once a week,

  • and about a quarter of people experience them several times a day.

  • They tend to burrow in during tasks that don't require much attention,

  • say, when waiting on water to boil

  • or a traffic light to change.

  • This phenomenon is one of the mind's great mysteries.

  • Scientists don't know exactly why it's so easy for tunes to get stuck in our heads.

  • From a psychological perspective,

  • earworms are an example of mental imagery.

  • This imagery can be visual,

  • like when you close your eyes and imagine a red wagon,

  • or it can be auditory,

  • like when you imagine the sound of a baby screaming,

  • or oil sizzling in a pan.

  • Earworms are a special form of auditory imagery

  • because they're involuntary.

  • You don't plug your ears and try to imagine "Who Let the Dogs Out,"

  • or, well, you probably don't.

  • It just intrudes onto your mental soundscape

  • and hangs around like an unwanted house guest.

  • Earworms tend to be quite vivid

  • and they're normally made up of a tune, rather than, say, harmonies.

  • A remarkable feature of earworms is their tendency to get stuck in a loop,

  • repeating again and again for minutes or hours.

  • Also remarkable is the role of repetition in sparking earworms.

  • Songs tend to get stuck when we listen to them recently and repeatedly.

  • If repetition is such a trigger,

  • then perhaps we can blame our earworms on modern technology.

  • The last hundred years have seen an incredible proliferation

  • of devices that help you listen to the same thing again and again.

  • Records, cassettes, CDs, or streamed audio files.

  • Have these technologies bred some kind of unique, contemporary experience,

  • and are earworms just a product of the late 20th century?

  • The answer comes from an unlikely source:

  • Mark Twain.

  • In 1876, just one year before the phonograph was invented,

  • he wrote a short story imagining a sinister takeover

  • of an entire town by a rhyming jingle.

  • This reference, and others,

  • show us that earworms seem to be a basic psychological phenomenon,

  • perhaps exacerbated by recording technology

  • but not new to this century.

  • So yes, every great historical figure, from Shakespeare to Sacajawea,

  • may well have wandered around with a song stuck in their head.

  • Besides music, it's hard to think of another case of intrusive imagery

  • that's so widespread.

  • Why music?

  • Why don't watercolors get stuck in our heads?

  • Or the taste of cheesy taquitos?

  • One theory has to do with the way music is represented in memory.

  • When we listen to a song we know,

  • we're constantly hearing forward in time, anticipating the next note.

  • It's hard for us to think about one particular musical moment in isolation.

  • If we want to think about the pitch of the word "you" in "Happy Birthday,"

  • we have to start back at "Happy,"

  • and sing through until we get to "you."

  • In this way, a tune is sort of like a habit.

  • Just like once you start tying your shoe,

  • you're on automatic until you tighten the bow,

  • once a tune is suggested

  • because, for example, someone says, "my umbrella,"

  • we have to play through until it reaches a natural stopping point,

  • "ella, ella, ella."

  • But this is a largely speculation.

  • The basic fact remains we don't know exactly why we're susceptible to earworms.

  • But understanding them better could give us important clues

  • to the workings of the human brain.

  • Maybe the next time we're plagued

  • by a Taylor Swift tune that just won't go away,

  • we'll use it as the starting point for a scientific odyssey

  • that will unlock important mysteries about basic cognition.

  • And if not, well, we can just shake it off.

Have you ever been waiting in line at the grocery store,

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B1 US TED-Ed imagery stuck ella tune auditory

【TED-Ed】Earworms: Those songs that get stuck in your head - Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

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