How to get rid of an earworm? Chew gum

Ridding yourself of those pesky earworms is just a stick of gum away.
Taking chewing gum
Date:14 May 2015

If Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” or the Lego Movie’s “Everything is awesome” doesn’t seem to get out of your head, and you keep humming it at every opportunity, you should try chewing gum.

The University of Reading in the UK has found that people who chew gum after hearing a catchy tune thought about the song less often.

Chewing gum also reduced the amount they ‘heard’ the song by one third.

Previous research has found that mouthing something to yourself, or even just moving your jaw around, interferes both with short-term memory and imagining sounds.  This study, however, is the first to examine what effect chewing gum has on earworms.

As well as helping those who suffer badly from earworms (from the German ‘ohrwurm’, catchy tunes that repeat in your head), the results suggest gum-chewing might help reduce other unwanted or intrusive thoughts. This is especially true for ones you ‘hear’.

A recent poll suggested more than 90 % of the population experience earworms at least once a week. Of these, 15 % classify their earworms as ‘disturbing’.

Dr Phil Beaman, from the University’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, led the study. He said: “The earworm phenomenon stretches back at least to the 19th century – Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain both referenced the experience in well-known works. The majority of us experience them for only short periods – perhaps just a few minutes – but others can experience them for two or three days which can be extremely frustrating and debilitating. We wanted to explore whether a simple act like chewing gum could help.

“We invited 98 volunteers to take part in our study. After playing them the catchy tunes Play Hard by David Guetta and Payphone by Maroon 5, we asked them to try not to think of the songs they had just heard over the next three minutes but to hit a key each time they did. In the chewing gum condition, volunteers reported thinking of and ‘hearing’ the song less often than in no-activity and finger-tapping control conditions.”

Dr Beaman says this type of activity could reduce other intrusive thoughts.

Dr Beaman continued: “Interfering with our own ‘inner speech’ through a more sophisticated version of the gum-chewing approach may work more widely. However more research is needed to see whether this will help counter symptoms of obsessive-compulsive and similar disorders.

In a 2009 study the University of Reading showed that virtually any song can become an earworm. More than 100 people were asked if they experienced earworms, for how long and the types of tunes heard. There was very little repetition in the list, although some artists were mentioned more than once including Pink Floyd, Justin Timberlake and Guns ‘n’ Roses. A 2012 study by Goldsmith’s College also found earworms were a very individual experience.

“It’s possible that popular songs are particularly difficult to suppress,” continued Dr Beaman. “Our previous research found that people only spontaneously report earworms of songs that they know well – we hope to examine this further in future studies. In the meantime however, the results of this study should be music to the ears for many.”

The study, “Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum!” was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

University of Reading