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Goldilocks and Controlling Intrusive Thoughts

The Goldilocks effect for controlling the song stuck in my head

Goldilocks wanted everything to be just right. The chair shouldn’t be too large or too small. The porridge shouldn’t be too hot or too cold and the bed shouldn’t be too hard or too soft. Goldilocks might have good advice for controlling intrusive thoughts as well.

My students and I have recently published a paper on a very common form of intrusive thought – having a song stuck in one’s head. Before I describe our Goldilocks effect, let me mention a few of the findings about songs stuck in one’s head, which some people call earworms. First, having a song in one’s head is a very common experience. Most people have had songs stuck in their head and some people experience intrusive songs frequently. Generally people know and like the songs stuck in their heads. The idea that these songs are invariably obnoxious songs or painful jingles is a myth. Yes, sometimes the song is annoying, but mostly people like the songs and they like the experience. The most common way in which intrusive song experiences start is by hearing the music. This is probably why people generally like the songs – we tend to listen to music that we like, not music we hate. Of course, people who work in places where they don’t control the music may not feel so good about the music to which they are exposed and that subsequently gets stuck in their heads.

Our most important findings concern what people were doing when songs came back into their heads. Frequently their ongoing activities were low in cognitive engagement and cognitive load. When people were walking or driving, tasks that are relatively automatic, songs were likely to start playing in their heads. At the other end of the cognitive load spectrum, we also found that college students often had songs return to consciousness when the tasks were challenging. If they were studying they reported that songs came back. If we gave them cognitive tasks after exposing them to music, we found that songs were more likely to return when the tasks were too hard. But if the task is just right, then intrusive songs are less likely to return. This is the Goldilocks effect. When cognitive engagement is just right, not too easy and not too hard, then songs were less likely to intrude into awareness.

I’m starting to use a stage metaphor for consciousness. At any moment in time, some thoughts are occupying the stage of consciousness. Sometimes the thoughts are called out onto the stage – something in the world around us reminds us of an idea. Maybe we hear a line from song and the song starts playing in our head. Many thoughts come to mind this ways as well. We see someone we know and start thinking about our memories of that person (see my earlier post on positive intrusive thoughts). We are driving to work and find that thoughts about what we need to do that day are occupying the stage of consciousness.

But in the theater of your mind, several thoughts are waiting in the wings for their moment on stage. If the stage empties, then some of those thoughts will come flying onto the stage for their moment in the spotlight, their chance to be the star of consciousness. Maybe that thought waiting in the wings is a song you heard recently. I find that after I hear a song and get busy with some other task, the song gets pushed off the stage. But in a moment of calm, I find the song starts playing again, the record spins in my mind again. Sometimes the thought that rushes back onto the stage of consciousness is some other personal concern – worries about something, thoughts about your relationship, or anticipations of exciting events that you will soon experience. I can’t keep my mind blank. It’s as if the theater of the mind can’t stay empty for long. There’s the stage and the spotlight is on. Some thought is waiting in the wings for its chance in the spotlight of awareness. Thoughts that you felt had gone come rushing back to awareness. We found that people reported that intrusive songs work this way. Part of the song loops in your head for a time and then disappears, perhaps because you get busy enough to push it off your mental stage. But many songs return, a few minutes, hours, or days later. Once a song or other intrusive thought gets started, those thoughts invariably return.

For this reason, we found that the best way to keep intrusive songs and maybe other intrusive thoughts out of conscious experience is to be completely engaged in some meaningful task. Keep the stage of consciousness busy, but not too busy. Goldilocks is right. You need your cognitive engagement to be just right, not too easy and not too hard. Doing that may keep intrusive thoughts out of your mind.

Hyman, Burland, Duskin, Cook, Roy, McGrath, & Roundhill, (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology.