5 Ways to Get Rid of Earworms, According to Science

iStock/STUDIOGRANDOUEST
iStock/STUDIOGRANDOUEST

The 19-year old undergraduate arrived at the student health center with an unusual complaint: Music had been stuck in his head for the past three years, and he could no longer cope. There was never just silence.

According to Dr. Zaid Yusufi Rafin, the psychiatrist that reported the case [PDF], it was a rare long-term manifestation of a pernicious earworm—a tune that gets stuck in your mind without your wanting it to. The student was able to reduce his earworms with cognitive-behavioral therapy, but short of a visit to the doctor, what can the rest of us do to rid ourselves of them? Here are five strategies, backed by science.

1. LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE SONG.

Earworms tend to be small fragments of music that repeat over and over (often a song’s refrain or chorus). A 2014 study evaluated existing surveys of people’s methods for coping with earworms and found that one of the most effective behaviors is just listening to the whole tune. Participants said they actively engaged with the offending music: They hummed or sang it, figured out the tune’s title and the name of the singer, or listened to the full song instead of the unwanted snippet. Some people listened to other music immediately after the ending of the earworm-generating tune as well.

2. LISTEN TO A “CURE TUNE.”

The same study also found that some subjects used competing songs, or “cure tunes,” to control their earworms. The researchers identified 64 such tunes, with six of them named by more than one person: “Happy Birthday to You,” “God Save the Queen” (the participants in the survey were British), The A-Team theme, “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel, “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, and “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. In most cases, the cure tunes suppressed the earworms without becoming earworms themselves. In the rare occasions when they did, people said that they preferred to have the cure tunes stuck in their heads.

3. DISTRACT YOURSELF WITH SOMETHING ELSE.

Our brains are incapable of paying attention to more than one thing at a time, so any attempts to multitask are neurally doomed to failure. This limitation can be helpful when it comes to earworms. Strategies involving words, rather than music, can help nudge your brain away from the earworms and towards something else. Some effective remedies include talking with other people, meditation, prayer, watching TV, and reading.

4. CHEW GUM.

In a 2015 study, researchers suspected that the act of chewing gum might interfere with the formation of the auditory imagery needed to experience an earworm. How? Chewing might hinder the motor programming involved in speech articulation, and therefore could keep people from subvocalizing (saying the words to the songs in their heads). They found that vigorous gum-chewing did reduce the number of unwanted musical thoughts, but noted that not just any kind of motor activity leads to earworm reduction. When the study participants tapped their fingers upon the desk, they had more persistent earworms than when they chewed gum.

5. LEAVE IT ALONE.

Despite earworms’ involuntary and intrusive nature, research indicates that people actually don't mind them that much. A daily diary study concluded that only a small percentage of earworms interfered with daily activities, and other research has found links between earworms and feelings of wellbeing, both before and while experiencing the inner tunes. Another study found that earworms occur more frequently for liked than for disliked songs. For most people, earworms don’t play for very long. If you happen to love your internal soundtrack, just sit back and enjoy it while it lasts.

The Psychology Behind Kids' L.O.L. Surprise! Doll Obsession

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Isaac Larian, the founder and CEO of toymaker MGA Entertainment, is an insomniac. Fortunately for him, that inability to sleep forced him to get up out of bed one night—a move that ended up being worth $4 billion.

Larian’s company is the architect of L.O.L. Surprise!, a line of dolls with a clever conceit. The product, which retails for about $10 to $20, is encased in a ball-shaped plastic shell and buried under layers of packaging, forcing children to tear through a gauntlet of wrapping before they’re able to see it. The inspiration came on that highly profitable sleepless night, which Larian spent watching unboxing videos on YouTube. It resulted in the first toy made for a generation wired for delayed gratification.

The dolls first went on sale in test markets at select Target stores in late 2016. MGA shipped out 500,000 of them, all of which sold out within two months. A Cabbage Patch Kid-esque frenzy came the following year. By late 2018, L.O.L. Surprise! (the acronym stands for the fancifully redundant Little Outrageous Little) had moved 800 million units, accounted for seven of the top 10 toys sold in the U.S., and was named Toy of the Year by the Toy Association. Videos of kids and adults unboxing them garner millions of views on YouTube, which is precisely where Larian knew his marketing would be most effective.

A woman holds a L.O.L. Surprise doll and packaging in her hand
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for MGA Entertainment

The dolls themselves are nothing revolutionary. Once freed from their plastic prisons, they stare at their owner with doe-eyed expressions. Some “tinkle,” while others change color in water. They can be dressed in accessories found in the balls or paired with tiny pets (which also must be "unboxed"). Larger bundles, like last year’s $89.99 L.O.L. Bigger Surprise! capsule, feature a plethora of items, each individually wrapped. It took a writer from The New York Times 59 minutes to uncover everything inside.

This methodical excavation is what makes L.O.L. Surprise! so appealing to its pint-sized target audience. Though MGA was advised that kids wouldn’t want to buy something they couldn’t see, Larian and his executives had an instinctual understanding of what child development experts already knew: Kids like looking forward to things.

Dr. Rachel Barr, director of Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, told The Atlantic that unboxing videos tickle the part of a child’s brain that enjoys anticipation. By age 4 or 5, they have a concept of “the future,” or events that will unfold somewhere other than the present. However, Barr said, they’re also wary of being scared by an unforeseen outcome. In an unboxing video, they know the payoff will be positive and not, say, a live tarantula.

L.O.L. Surprise! is engineered to prolong that anticipatory joy, with kids peeling away wrapping like an onion for up to 20 minutes at a time. The effect is not entirely novel—baseball card collectors have been buying and unwrapping card packs without knowing exactly what’s inside for decades—but paired with social media, MGA was able to strike oil. The dolls now have 350 licensees making everything from bed sheets to apparel. Collectors—or their parents—can buy a $199.99 doll house. So-called “boy toys” are now lurking inside the wrappers, with one, the mohawk-sporting Punk Boi, causing a mild stir for being what MGA calls “anatomically correct.” His tiny plastic genital area facilitates a peeing function.

Whether L.O.L. Surprise! bucks conventional toy trends and continues its popularity beyond a handful of holiday seasons remains to be seen. Already, MGA is pushing alternative products like Poopsie Slime Surprise, a unicorn that can be fed glitter and poops a viscous green slime. An official unboxing video has been viewed 4.2 million times and counting.

More Than Half of Wild Coffee Species Could Go Extinct

iStock.com/Alfribeiro
iStock.com/Alfribeiro

Your morning cup of coffee is under threat. A study published today in Science Advances asserts that a majority of the world’s wild coffee species are at risk of extinction. The main two types we rely on for our caffeine fix—arabica and robusta beans—are both threatened by climate change and deforestation.

The team of UK-based researchers used Red List of Threatened Species criteria from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to classify the risks facing the world’s 124 known species of wild coffee. About 60 percent of them—or 75 different species—face possible extinction in the coming decades. This represents “one of the highest levels recorded for a plant group,” researchers write in their paper.

Partly to blame are the severe droughts associated with climate change, as well as deforestation. Other threats include the spread of fungal pathogens and coffee wilt disease in Central and South America and Africa, respectively, as well as social and economic factors for growers.

“Considering threats from human encroachment and deforestation, some [coffee species] could be extinct in 10 to 20 years, particularly with the added influence of climate change," lead author Aaron P. Davis, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, tells CNN.

Davis’s previous research stressed that arabica, which is already listed as an endangered species, could be extinct within 60 years. Most of the coffee plants we rely on are farmed, but wild coffee is no less important. Some wild species are resistant to disease and have other useful genes that could be introduced to commercial crops. That way, the cultivated varieties might endure the effects of climate change better and stick around a little longer.

Consumers aren’t the only ones concerned, either. Coffee farming is an industry that supports about 100 million workers around the world. One way of conserving the plants is to store their seeds and genes, but Hanna Neuschwander, the director of communications for the industry group World Coffee Research, tells Mashable that these seed banks aren’t well established yet. For now, the focus is on preserving the plants themselves.

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