Saturday, August 27, 2011


"Don't you want me baby?
Don't you want me oh?"
-The Human League

I apologize.

If you came of age listening to the radio anytime around the Reagan presidency, at this exact moment, you're now going "dum, dum da dah dum... dabadabadada." That's because whether you liked this song or whether you hated this song, in 1981 you heard it played approximately 1,472,386 times, and it is embedded in your brain. You may not have thought about for 30 years, but now that I've brought it up, I guarantee it will haunt you as it came back to haunt me.

I blame it on David Mitchell. Not the lyricist, singer or producer of the tune in question, he's an English novelist. Having enjoyed his historical novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," I decided to check out some of his other works. That led me to "Black Swan Green," a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a 13-year old boy growing up in the eighties in a village in Worcestershire, England. In one of the very first chapters, Jason talks about how his sister is holed up in her room listening to "The Human League." And so it began.

If there's any comfort, it's two things: the song wasn't by Barry Manilow, and you're not crazy, it's a documented condition. It even has a name: earworms. Not the parasite that Ricardo Montalbán dropped into the helmet of Chekov in "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," but rather it's all about your brain's need to fill in gaps where it only has partial information. According to researchers studying this at Dartmouth (yes, Dartmouth!), when they played part of a familiar song to subjects, the participants' auditory cortex automatically filled in the rest. In other words, their brains kept "singing" along long after the song had ended.

There's ample historical precedent to this. It's widely written that Mozart's children would "infuriate" him by playing melodies and scales on the piano below his room, but stop before completing the tune. He would have to rush down and complete the sequence because he couldn't bear to listen to an unresolved scale. But even if your piano skills aren't up to Ludwig's, you can still fall prey. While it's true that musicians are more often bothered than non-musicians, women are afflicted significantly more than men, as are people who are neurotic, tired or stressed. In other words, you.

In fact, James Kellaris, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, has found that as many as 99% of us have fallen prey to this phenomenon. On average, the episodes last over a few hours and occur "frequently" or "very frequently" among 61.5% of the sample. As Kellaris writes, "Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74%), followed by commercial jingles (15%) and instrumental tunes without words (11%)." What seems to unite them is a simple, upbeat melody, as well as catchy, repetitive lyrics and a twist such as an extra beat or unusual rhythm. Not surprisingly, these factors are also what make songs or jingles popular in the first place (like the Chili's, "I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs" jingle, which made Kellaris' list of the most insidiously "stuck" songs).

But that's just fill-in-the-blank. Why do we keep repeating it over and over and over until we want to scream? While they don't know for sure, experts describe it for us mere mortals as a "brain itch." They surmise that your brain hates to have holes. And just like a mosquito bite, repeating it scratches that spot. Others postulate that earworms are simply a way to keep the brain busy when it's idling. Of course, we all know that the more you scratch a bite, the more it itches. And so it becomes self replicating.

So what is the calamine lotion for earworms? For sure, another song can dislodge the first, but it can also start a whole new pattern. You can also switch to an activity that keeps you busy, such as working out. Some report success by, in a homage to that Star Trek episode, picturing the earworm as a real creature crawling out of your head, and then stomping on it.

There is one more remedy: try listening to the song all the way through to get away from the hook. And so if you are where I was, here you go: "Don't, don't you want me? You know I don't believe you when you say that you don't need me. It's much too late to find, you think you've changed your mind, you'd better change it back or we will both be sorry."

All together now...


Marc Wollin of Bedford is easily distracted. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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