Chewing gum gets rid of that song stuck in your head

If that Maroon 5 tune is driving you to distraction, scientists have found a simple solution to banish such sounds and other intrusive thoughts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 6:45am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 6:45am

Think about all those cheesy songs from radio that get stuck in your head when you are trapped in a taxi or leaving your flat.

Ever have tunes like All by Myself, I've Never Been to Me, You Light Up My Life or I'll Always Love You playing over and over in your head like a migraine headache you can't get rid of? In German, the phenomenon is called ohrwurm, or earworms. Now science has found a reliable way to get rid of it - chew gum.

Yes, that's right. British researchers from the University of Reading have found that people who chew gum after hearing catchy songs think less often about the song. Chewing gum also reduces the amount they "hear" the song by one third.

"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," said Phil Beaman, who led the study, from the university's School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences.

"We wanted to explore whether a simple act like chewing gum could help."

Previous research has found that mouthing something to yourself, or moving your jaw around, helps disrupt both short-term memory and sounds in your head. Beaman's team, whose study - "Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum!" - has been published in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, focuses on the effects of chewing gun on "earworms".

Their experiment involved 98 volunteers. After playing them catchy tunes such as Play Hard by David Guetta and Payphone by Maroon 5, they were asked 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. The gun-chewing volunteers reported "hearing" the song less often than those who did not chew gum.

Besides helping those who are prone to having "earworms", the latest results suggest gum-chewing may also help reduce other unwanted or intrusive thoughts - especially ones people "hear".

"This type of activity could reduce other intrusive thoughts," Beaman said. "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."

The earworm phenomenon has been described by Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain in some of their works. A recent poll suggested that more than 90 per cent of people in Britain experienced them at least once a week, with 15 per cent classifying their earworms as "disturbing".

In a 2009 study the University of Reading showed that virtually any song can become an earworm. Over 100 people were asked if they had 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.

"It's possible that popular songs are particularly difficult to suppress," Beaman said. "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."