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.

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER