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.

5 Signs Humans Are Still Evolving

Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images
Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images

When we think of human evolution, our minds wander back to the millions of years it took natural selection to produce modern-day man. Recent research suggests that, despite modern technology and industrialization, humans continue to evolve. "It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans," Dr. Virpi Lummaa, a professor at the University of Turku, told Gizmodo.

But not only are we still evolving, we're doing so even faster than before. In the last 10,000 years, the pace of our evolution has sped up, creating more mutations in our genes, and more natural selections from those mutations. Here are some clues that show humans are continuing to evolve.

1. Humans drink milk.

Historically, the gene that regulated humans' ability to digest lactose shut down as we were weaned off our mothers' breast milk. But when we began domesticating cows, sheep, and goats, being able to drink milk became a nutritionally advantageous quality, and people with the genetic mutation that allowed them to digest lactose were better able to propagate their genes.

The gene was first identified in 2002 in a population of northern Europeans that lived between 6000 and 5000 years ago. The genetic mutation for digesting milk is now carried by more than 95 percent of northern European descendants. In addition, a 2006 study suggests this tolerance for lactose developed again, independently of the European population, 3000 years ago in East Africa.

2. We're losing our wisdom teeth.

Our ancestors had much bigger jaws than we do, which helped them chew a tough diet of roots, nuts, and leaves. And what meat they ate they tore apart with their teeth, all of which led to worn-down chompers that needed replacing. Enter the wisdom teeth: A third set of molars is believed to be the evolutionary answer to accommodate our ancestors' eating habits.

Today, we have utensils to cut our food. Our meals are softer and easier to chew, and our jaws are much smaller, which is why wisdom teeth are often impacted when they come in — there just isn't room for them. Unlike the appendix, wisdom teeth have become vestigial organs. One estimate says 35 percent of the population is born without wisdom teeth, and some say they may disappear altogether.

3. We're resisting infectious diseases.

In 2007, a group of researchers looking for signs of recent evolution identified 1800 genes that have only become prevalent in humans in the last 40,000 years, many of which are devoted to fighting infectious diseases like malaria. More than a dozen new genetic variants for fighting malaria are spreading rapidly among Africans. Another study found that natural selection has favored city-dwellers. Living in cities has produced a genetic variant that allows us to be more resistant to diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy. "This seems to be an elegant example of evolution in action," says Dr. Ian Barnes, an evolutionary biologist at London's Natural History Museum, said in 2010 statement. "It flags up the importance of a very recent aspect of our evolution as a species, the development of cities as a selective force."

4. Our brains are shrinking.

While we may like to believe our big brains make us smarter than the rest of the animal world, our brains have actually been shrinking over the last 30,000 years. The average volume of the human brain has decreased from 1500 cubic centimeters to 1350 cubic centimeters, which is an amount equivalent to the size of a tennis ball.

There are several different conclusions as to why this is: One group of researchers suspects our shrinking brains mean we are in fact getting dumber. Historically, brain size decreased as societies became larger and more complex, suggesting that the safety net of modern society negated the correlation between intelligence and survival. But another, more encouraging theory says our brains are shrinking not because we're getting dumber, but because smaller brains are more efficient. This theory suggests that, as they shrink, our brains are being rewired to work faster but take up less room. There's also a theory that smaller brains are an evolutionary advantage because they make us less aggressive beings, allowing us to work together to solve problems, rather than tear each other to shreds.

5. Some of us have blue eyes.

Originally, we all had brown eyes. But about 10,000 years ago, someone who lived near the Black Sea developed a genetic mutation that turned brown eyes blue. While the reason blue eyes have persisted remains a bit of a mystery, one theory is that they act as a sort of paternity test. “There is strong evolutionary pressure for a man not to invest his paternal resources in another man’s child,” Bruno Laeng, lead author of a 2006 study on the development of blue eyes, told The New York Times. Because it is virtually impossible for two blue-eyed mates to create a brown-eyed baby, our blue-eyed male ancestors may have sought out blue-eyed mates as a way of ensuring fidelity. This would partially explain why, in a recent study, blue-eyed men rated blue-eyed women as more attractive compared to brown-eyed women, whereas females and brown-eyed men expressed no preference.

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

iStock.com/Techin24
iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

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