A: The first time I heard Taylor Swift’s bubblegum pop hit “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together,” I thought it was just kind of meh. But then, suddenly, "We are never ever, EVER getting back together" would creep into my head while I was brushing my teeth. "But oooh, this time I’m telling you, I’m telling you," would play in my ears while I was trying to concentrate at work. I couldn’t even escape that irksome “rap” in the song: "And I’m like…I just, I mean, this is exhausting, you know, like, we are never getting back together. Like, ever." Talk about worst thing ever!
Getting a song stuck in your head is almost as fun as an itchy mosquito bite. And it could be anything—the latest radio hit, a movie theme song, that annoying Chili’s jingle you heard on TV ions ago (don’t worry, I won’t do it). Our brains are not picky. Especially if you are a woman—sorry, girls, we are apparently particularly susceptible.
Luckily these “earworms,” as experts call them because of their ability to “burrow” into our brains, can be eliminated.
A recent study at Western Washington University found that your environment is likely to blame. “Intrusive songs often return to awareness [both] during periods of low cognitive load” as well as “during cognitively challenging activities,” the study says. Basically, if you’re super bored, or struggling with an overly difficult mental task, you’re more prone to letting earworms creep in.
The solution: Take a break, and find a task somewhere in the middle of the spectrum—nothing too repetitive or mind-numbing, but not too difficult either, where your mind is apt to wonder. An appropriately challenging task that you enjoy —like reading a good book—is your best bet at exterminating those earworms.
Other potential “risk factors:”
- Participants in the study who were stressed, tired or in a busy environment reported more mind wandering (i.e. more earworms), while those who were happy and doing activities they actually enjoyed reported less.
- Previous research has shown that only knowing part of the lyrics—as most of us do—can be especially troublesome: our brains want to complete the thought, but when they can’t, they get stuck on repeat, much like that proverbial broken record.
- Finally, the study suggests that—contrary to the common perception that only those truly obnoxious tunes get stuck—it’s actually the songs we like that generally burrow into our brains.
Guess I just got busted for that T-Swift song.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.