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Glad You Asked

September 17, 2009

Q: Why do songs “get stuck” in your head—and how can you get them out? And why are the songs that get stuck in your head always the annoying ones you don’t even like?
—Julia Williamson, Berkeley

A: Our memory system is bombarded with inputs—people, food, places, actions, events, and, yes, songs. It preferentially remembers those that cause emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, and annoyance because they are likely to be important to us. The rest may be gradually forgotten. Songs tend to get stuck in our heads because they evoke strong emotions. Annoying songs are memorized because negative emotions are just as powerful as positive ones—if not more so—in reinforcing memory. Scientists have found, unsurprisingly, that memory of an event may be suppressed if you avoid thinking about it. So if you want to forget about a song, try to lighten up and stop dwelling on its annoyance. You might forget it. At least the matter will not get worse.

—Thanks to Shaowen Bao, adjunct associate professor of neuroscience, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute

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