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5 ways to get Baby, It's Cold Outside (or any holiday song) out of your head

A U.K. psychologist who has studied earworms explains why we get them, and how to kick them out

A U.K. psychologist who has studied earworms explains why we get them, and how to kick them out

No matter where you stand on the Baby, It's Cold Outside issue, the controversy has come with a very serious and unintended consequence: people across North America and around the world are complaining that they have the song stuck in their heads. (YouTube)

Last week, an internet firestorm erupted over the song Baby, It's Cold Outside, with several radio networks pulling the Christmas tune. 

But no matter where you stand, the controversy has come with a very serious and unintended side-effect: people across North America and around the world are complaining that they have the chirpy winter tune stuck in their heads.

Philip Beaman, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Reading, has studied earworms and says he's not surprised the tune is getting firmly lodged in our noggins, because the situation makes for a kind of perfect storm.

Those stuck songs are little more than a type of musical memory, he explains, and roughly 98 percent of people experience them. They become problematic when you want the song gone — and the more you notice and try to will it away, the more deeply that memory gets embedded.

"You come into this vicious circle that the psychologist Dan Wegner called the theory of ironic processes of mental control. Basically what he said to his participants was, 'For the next three minutes, I'd you to think of anything you want. Just don't think of a white bear.' And of course you then have three minutes sitting there thinking, 'White bear, oh darn.'

"So in order to be sure that you are not thinking of the song, you have to think of the song, and then you think, 'That's the song I wasn't supposed to think of,'" says Beaman. "So that's when the loop comes in, and the very act of trying to get rid of it is actually making it last."

Beaman says that for the same reason, when people are reading or hearing about the Baby, It's Cold Outside controversy, they're thinking of the song — and then it gets stuck. Because the news has been so widespread, and people's brains are primed to hear the song, that stickiness has become a phenomenon.

"In order to recognize the song, you have to kind of sing it to yourself, even if you're not doing it deliberately," he says. "And you can't remember a musical tune without remembering the rhythm and the notes and the tempo. So just the act of remembering it is playing it to yourself."

Beaman says different people experience different earworms, but the tunes that get lodged the most often tend to have simple, easy-to-follow melodies — which is true of the worst Christmas offenders — and because holiday songs are so ubiquitous at this time of year, they have especially high earworm potential. (He says if you ask study participants in July what songs are stuck in their heads, they never mention Christmas songs, but if you ask in December it's a different story.)

"And when one song is being talked about a lot, that's really ratcheting it up," he says. "So there's even more exposure, and as soon as someone hears any Christmas song, they might be more likely to think of this Christmas song — and then they might go 'Oh darn, not again.'"

So what are the best ways to banish Baby, It's Cold Outside, or any holiday earworm, from your mind? Through various experiments, Beaman has found the key is to do things that interfere with your ability to imagine that music. Here are five things you can try:

1. Listen to a different song

Beaman says that if you have one song stuck in your head, listening to a different one can help dislodge it.

"Basically you can't hear two songs in your head at once. There may be accomplished musicians who can track harmonies and count harmonies and things like that, but for the average person, trying to listen to two songs at once is really hard — and trying to imagine two songs at once is even harder," he says.

"So something's got to give. And if you sing along to another song it might be even better, because then you're overtly rehearsing it and it's not just in your head. You're also hearing the displacement. Something like that ought to be quite effective."

According to Beaman, listening to a different song can help get rid of earworms like Baby, It's Cold Outside, because most people can't focus on two songs at once. (John Ehlke/Associated Press)

2. Chew gum vigorously

Beaman says that, like singing a different song, chewing gum can help throw a wrench into the mental looping that causes earworms.

"If you try and work out whether Jingle Bells goes up or down after the third note, you can do that, but you have to sort of sing it to yourself — and if you're chewing gum it's a lot harder to do," he explains. "And if you ask people to chew gum and then imagine a tune, and report how vivid that imagination is, it's less vivid when they're chewing the gum."

So why is that? Beaman believes it's because the same brain regions and the same processes are involved in both activities.

"The way we remember musical memories is by singing them to ourselves, and that involves mentally planning how we would sing it. If you're chewing gum vigorously then you're planning your jaw movements and chewing the gum, and it's like trying to use your left arm to do two things simultaneously. It can't really be done," he says.

"So if you make your brain do something that competes for that activity, then something's got to give — and if you concentrate on the one, the other should be harder."

Doing puzzles such as Sudoku can also help banish earworms; just make sure they're not too easy or two hard.

3. Listen to the earworm from start to finish

This theory has been posited by other psychologists, but Beaman says he's a little dubious about it — and thinks it could even result in further embedding the earworm.

"The idea is there is this thing called the Zeigarnik effect — that you have to listen to the end of the song in order to reach some sort of closure. I am less convinced," he says.

"I think if you listen to the end, then you've just listened to the whole song. And there is nothing stopping you from thinking about it again."

4. Work on a puzzle 

Beaman did an experiment involving participants doing Sudoku puzzles, and found that, like trying to sing two songs at once, doing a puzzle and thinking of a song at the same time is next to impossible — as long as you choose the right kind of puzzle.

"If the puzzle was too easy people's minds wandered and they started thinking of the song, and if the puzzle was too hard, people gave up and started thinking of the song," he says. "So you got to get it exactly right — absorbing enough to be able to keep people's mind on the puzzle."

5. Just forget about it 

Trying to will yourself to forget the song can make it worse, says Beaman, but if you don't give it too much thought, usually the song will naturally leave your head within a day or so.

Don't try to push the songs out of your head, advises Beaman; rather, just let them be and they should make their way out within a day or so. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

"These things replay because you find them irritating and therefore you try and stop them. But if you sort of relax into it, it might be easier. Just don't rise to the bait, so to speak," says Beaman.

"Wilfully trying to banish it is a bit like wilfully trying not to think of a white bear. It's really hard to do."

But whether it's gum chewing, puzzle-doing, or simply trying to zone out, Beaman says the key is to find something that works, and stick with it; he also offers one final piece of advice on how to keep holiday songs from getting stuck this season.

"Really the thing to do is to avoid hearing them," he says with a laugh. "So my advice is online shopping."

What are your most persistent earworms? Share them in the comments! And whatever you do, don't think of Jingle Bells.

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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