Scientists Have Explained Why You Can’t Get That Annoying Song Out Of Your Head

Written by Emmy Mack on 22nd July, 2015

Scientists Have Explained Why You Can’t Get That Annoying Song Out Of Your Head

Certain songs actually, legitimately, literally get stuck in your head sometimes, according to science. But some people have it worse than others, and if you are one of those people, then you can blame the shape of your brain.

Researchers from the University of London have conducted a study into the reasons why certain people get songs stuck in their heads more than others, surveying 44 people and then using MRIs to scan their brains.

We’ve tried our best to give you the #ELI5 version, below.

Earworms Exist

With the more sciencey name of “involuntary musical imagery” (INMI), earworms is the name given to the phenomenon in which a song becomes lodged inside a person’s brain and refuses to leave.

spongebob earworm

They affect different people, differently

According to study co-author, Lauren Stewart, the size and shape of a person’s brain affects their susceptibility to earworms. As New Scientist reports, people who suffer earworms more often have thicker tissue in the parts of their brain that control sound perception.

“Areas in the auditory cortex that we know are active when you actually listen to music seem to be physically different in people who are experiencing music that’s not even there,” Stewart explained.
Brain size also affects your response to the earworms

According to the study, some people find that earworms help them to stay focused, whereas others find them, well, really f**king annoying.

The former generally had a larger hippocampus (an area of the brain involved in memory), while the latter had more grey matter in the emotion-related temporal pole.

The differences were unrelated to how much musical training the research subjects had, or how often they listened to music.

Earworms are also prone to strike ‘idle minds’

As part of the study, Stewart’s team tried to give unsuspecting volunteers earworms by playing them movie trailers for Pretty Woman and James Bond, then giving them a task afterwards.

They found that volunteers got music from the movies stuck in their heads less often if the job was more challenging, while those who were just left sitting around on their arses developed more hectic cases of earworms, supporting the idea that the little blighters are more likely to strike so-called “idle minds”.


Earworms could exist for biological reasons

This one’s just a hypothesis, but going off anecdotes from people who’ve experienced intense earworms in near-death situations, Stewart believes they could have a biological role in keeping us alive in dangerous situations.

“Earworms might have a homeostatic role in not allowing you to slip too far below consciousness, keeping you in an optimum zone of alertness,” she says.


Although interesting, the study doesn’t seem to have really shed any light on why certain songs get stuck in our heads more than others, citing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and, appropriately, Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Kylie Minogue as some of the most-reported culprits.

It was also unable to recommended any methods for those plagued by earworms to rid themselves of the pests (number 5 brain-trim, perhaps?) but a previously-released study may hold those precious answers.

In the meantime, test yourself for earworms by listening to the song, below.

Watch: Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head


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