A colleague last week asked me to take a look at a post she wrote in which she describes her deep connection to the music her mom exposed her to as a child. She had just watched Dave Grohl's music documentary "Sound City" and was treated to a concert where Stevie Nicks sang an acoustic version of her iconic song, "Landslide," performed so hauntingly that it brought the house to tears.
I began humming "Landslide" even before I finished reading the post. And since then, I've been battling a major case of earworm.
An earworm is "when your head gives a song more spins than your local radio station," says Huff/Post 50 blogger Pat Gallagher. "Certain tunes just stick in your brain like flypaper, whether you want them to or not." She nailed it. "Landslide" has taken up permanent residency in my brain with no signs of moving on. If I could, I'd be charging it space rent.
I'm trying to look at the bright side here. In a way, it's a good thing. "Landslide" managed to push out Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" that was put there three months earlier by an office hip-hop class. At the time, I was still experiencing residuals of Matisyahu's "One Day" which I heard playing in my favorite Kauai surf shop. Before that, the girls' chorus at my daughter's 8th grade graduation last June sang "New Soul" by Yael Naim, which then spent the summer in my head.
Earworms, all. I'm apparently what researchers would call "highly susceptible." And there are no vaccinations or cures for earworm, although there's an old wives' tale that says doing a crossword puzzle chases the song away; trust me, only for awhile. Running also apparently helps, but I think only if you wear earphones and listen to Bob Dylan in his early years while you pound the pavement.
According to research, there are reasons why certain songs are more likely to stick with us. Parents are especially susceptible to the songs they sing or play to their children -- even years later. And songs that we associate with special memories come back to earworm-haunt us. For me, Carly Simon's "Let The River Run" plays in my head every time I fight with my husband. It was "my song" with the guy I dated before him. Don't think we need Freud to explain that one, do we?
Psychologist Victoria Williamson told NPR that about 90 percent of us get a tune stuck in our heads at least once a week and because this is such an effortless form of memory -- we're not even trying and these songs come into our heads and repeat and repeat and repeat -- that it's actually a good thing in terms of memory research.
Her hope is that one day we can recall facts as effortlessly as we can these tunes. While it's a long ways away, this little memory thing our brains do might actually help science fix other memory issues connected to aging, she said. "Certainly if we can learn to harness the power
of earworms for memory retrieval then that may be one useful tool in our kit to better address such memory issues," she told The Huffington Post. That'd certainly be good news.
It's also probably good news that the older we get, the less prone to earworms we are. "As far as we can tell," said Williamson, "the trend, if one exists, is for a negative relationship between age and earworm frequency -- meaning that older people tend to report experiencing them less." But in reality, she adds, this is a small effect. "Much better predictors of how likely someone is to get earworms is how much a person listens to music and some aspects of their personality, such as a tendency towards neuroticism." OK, so she got my number on that last one.
Without question though, earworms can be annoying little buggers. Fifteen percent of those who experience them describe them as "disturbing," according to Williamson's website and one third called them "unpleasant." And even though earworms are essentially harmless, they can get in the way of what you are trying to do and can stop you from thinking straight.
We think Williamson was only joking when she suggested that the British national anthem sung slowly is good for getting rid of earworms.
Oh, and one other thing: Earworms are apparently quite contagious. Sometimes the mere mention of a song triggers it in another person. So with my apologies, anyone feel up for a chorus of "Landslide" about now?
People often tell me the day they were born to test my memory, and after telling them the day of the week, I love to turn the tables and ask them about their 21st birthday. The context of a memory helps fill in details that may, at first, be a little hazy. When you recall the day of the week an event took place, everything else starts to make more sense. Even though my mind has automatically stored that my 21st birthday was on a Friday, yours doesn't have to. Find the day of the week of your 21st birthday by Googling the date. Just knowing how long you had to wait for a weekend or how quickly you were back at school or work after your night of partying will help unlock details that you didn't remember were in there.
Music is one of the easiest ways to remember something. It can put us back in a physical or mental space faster than almost any other trigger. Furthermore, any song you can call your favorite is probably loaded with memories. Maybe your first listen jumps right into your head, but if it doesn't, find the song on YouTube and let yourself be transported back to the first time that song graced your soon-to-be in love ears (or your soon-to-be-dancing feet!)
Weddings are usually memorable occasions in our lives, and they appeal to our love of linear thinking. It starts with getting ready, followed by the ceremony, the reception, and then, perhaps, the after party. I call this horizontal memory because it moves along a swath of horizontal time and sequences events in an easy-to-visualize timeline. However, we can also remember a wedding in a vertical manner, unlocking more information as we go deeper and deeper into one particular moment. The more you think about actually being there, the more information will come to you. You might also get a lot out of remembering in a mushrooming way, where the wedding opens you up to a whole sea of connected memories, including those that occurred months later and months before. Both this method and the final one, sporadic remembering (completely non-connected events that spring to mind), are more free associative than horizontal or vertical thinking, but they can be especially useful for seeing the big picture of a certain time in your life.
I know from teaching memory classes for years that everyone has a dominant sense that helps you record, retain, and retrieve memories. Which one is yours? Sight, sound, touch, taste or smell? When trying to recall a first date with someone, play to your strengths and use your dominant sense to trigger the memories of that date. (How did they look, what did they say, how did they feel, what did you eat, or how did they smell?) By activating your dominant sense, you may not only be able to bask in the glow of a long forgotten moment, you may also be able to look at it under a harsh light that will help you notice a red flag you should have seen the first time around.
One thing that amazes people, even more than my ability to recall dates and events, is how many phone numbers I hold in my mind. This is especially freaky when I haven't seen somebody for a decade or two. There are many techniques out there for remembering strings of numbers, but here's how I do it, and I think it's the most personal method out there. Each one of us automatically knows several combinations of numbers that we can relate to at a glance (a birthday, anniversary, etc). When you have a phone number to remember, break it into two-, three-, or four-digit pieces that are already significant to you, and it'll be much easier. You don't need to make up images to remember the number, because it is all coming from things you already know.
This one you obviously remember, otherwise you wouldn't think of it as your favorite day. But how well do you remember it? Really dive into the details of what made this day so special? Was it the people? Some activity you love to do? What you were wearing, reading or even eating? Whatever gets you back there most vividly is probably something I call your primary memory Track - the lens through which you can most easily access your past (e.g. travel, sports, clothing, relationships, etc.) Everyone has something they remember especially well, and knowing your Track will help take you back!
People often say to me, "No way can I remember a few years ago. I can't even remember what I ate for dinner last week!" Using the suggestions from panels 1-6, prompt your memory by applying them to last Sunday's dinner. Use the date, music, the four types of memory retrieval, your dominant sense, a significant number and your primary memory Track to get the ball rolling on what you did and, eventually, what you ate last Sunday. If you still cannot remember, try paying attention this Sunday, so that next week at this time, you will remember! Memory takes practice, and like anything else, practice makes perfect!
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