Dr. Murray Feingold: Exploring the 'infectious' earworm

Dr. Murray Feingold

Although you probably are not aware of it, you most likely have been infected with an earworm. You just didn't know its name. But don't get too worried, it is not an infection caused by a virus or bacteria.

The main symptom produced by this earworm is having a song, part of a song, a tune or a commercial jingle continuously recur in your brain.

As they say, "You can't get it out of your head."

And it doesn't always stay in your head. You may hum the tune or, to the chagrin of others, continuously sing the song.

In a certain way it may be infectious because, before you know it, those around you may start humming the same tune.

Earworm is apparently derived from the German word "ohrwurm." Another name for this condition is "involuntary musical imagery."

It can take place at any time but occurs more frequently when a person is involved with activities that do not require a great deal of concentration, such as walking or doing mundane chores.

Studies have shown that people who are most commonly afflicted with earworms are musicians or those who frequently listen to music.

Also, people who perform certain repetitive habits such as continually tapping their fingers or biting on pencils have more bouts of involuntary musical imagery.

One study on this subject showed that 98 percent of people at one time or another have had earworms. In this study women were more bothered by it then men.

There is no easy way to get rid of the recurring song or jingle, although some people try to listen to other types of music.

Some psychologists believe that the more serious cases of earworm may be associated with an obsessive-compulsive personality.

This phenomenon has caught the attention of the scientific community. There are certain laboratories whose main research efforts are centered on trying to explain the etiology of this condition.

The researchers next step is to use brain scans -- such as MRIs -- to help determine why you can't get that tune out of your head.

Massachusetts-based Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.