by Richard Gray Daily Telegraph
They are the songs you cannot get out of your head. Now scientists may have found a way to help anyone plagued by those annoying tunes that lodge themselves inside our heads and repeat on an endless loop.
Researchers claim the best way to stopping the phenomenon, sometimes known as earworms – where snippets of a catchy song inexplicably play like a broken record in your brain – is to solve some tricky anagrams.
This can force the intrusive music out of your working memory, they say, allowing it to be replaced with other more amenable thoughts.
But they also warn not to try anything too difficult as those irritating melodies may wiggle their way back into your consciousness.
For those unwilling to carry around a book of anagrams, a good novel may also do the trick.
“The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge,” said Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University who conducted the research. “If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.
“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resource, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing.
“Likewise, if you are trying something too hard, then your brain will not be engaged successfully, so that music can come back. You need to find that bit in the middle where there is not much space left in the brain. That will be different for each individual.
“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.”
Dr Hyman and his team conducted a series of tests on volunteers by playing them popular songs in an attempt to find out how tunes can become stuck in long term memory.
By playing songs by the Beatles, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé while the volunteers completed mazes drawn out on pieces of paper, they found they could get songs to play mentally in the participants heads and that they were then likely to recur intrusively through the next day.
They then tested whether performing puzzles such as Sudoku or anagrams would help to reduce the recurrence of the earworms.
They found that while Sudoku puzzles could help prevent the songs from replaying their heads, if they were too difficult it had little effect.
Anagrams were more successful and they found that solving those with five letters gave the best results.
“Verbal tasks like solving anagrams or reading a good novel seem to be very good at keeping earworms out,” said Dr Hyman, who now hopes to examine whether similar techniques could be used to prevent other intrusive thoughts caused by anxiety or obsessiveness.