Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head that you just could not get rid of, no matter how hard you tried? What a stupid question of course you have. Everyone has. Right now there's probably a Buddhist monk sitting alone on a Tibetan mountaintop trying to remember his mantra, but instead his brain stubbornly keeps bombarding him with the lyrics to "Who Let The Dogs Out?"
Experts refer to this phenomenon as "Stuck Song Syndrome." The songs themselves are often called "earworms," named for a parasitic type of invertebrate that been known to burrow into a sleeping person's ear and begin singing the Beach Boys' hit, "Help Me, Rhonda."
If nothing else, this syndrome proves that the brain is not just a benign organ that exists solely to do its owner's bidding. Oh sure, the brain can come in handy, like when you need to come up with an excuse to tell your boss why you're late to work for the third time this week (and it's only Wednesday), or for playing along at home while watching Wheel of Fortune.
But the fact is that brain can be a real jerk too. Otherwise, why would it wake you up in the middle of the night just to remind you about the time you were so happy when all your eighth grade classmates cheered your campaign speech for student council - until you realized they were only applauding because you had a stream of toilet paper longer than the train on Princess Diana's wedding dress trailing out of the back of your jeans? It sure didn't help that for the rest of the year every time you walked into the room your classmates and the teacher would launch into a round of "Here Comes the Bride."
Stuck Song Syndrome may just be the brain's way of punishing us for all those terrible sitcoms we forced it to sit through. You think it's a coincidence that one of the most common earworms is the theme from Gilligan's Island?
I asked James Kellaris, a University of Cincinnati marketing professor and the world's leading expert on earworms, what possible evolutionary advantage might arise from having brains that drive us crazy by replaying the same tune in our heads.
"One might speculate that it is our subconscious trying to convey a message, as in the case of an atheist who gets a hymn stuck in his head," Kellaris says. "But that doesn't explain why the rest of us are going around repeatedly singing 'Do Wah Diddy' to ourselves."
The worst earworm I ever suffered was "Runaround Sue" by the 1950s-era crooner Dion. This is a perfectly harmless tune stressing the importance of monogamy a critical message for teens in an era when you never knew what disease you might pick up at a sock hop or from the bathroom at the local soda jerk. At least I used to think Runaround Sue was harmless until I had to spend upwards of a week listening to Dion's warning that, "she gooooes…out with other guys" rattling around my brain on perpetual repeat.
Desperate for relief, I tried getting a hold of Dion himself, to see if he'd ever discovered how to "keep away from a-Runaround Sue." It seemed the least he could do after all the suffering he'd caused me. Sadly, Dion's burly security detail didn't see it that way. On the bright side, the earworm finally went away on its own, coincidentally on the same day the restraining order went into effect.
I asked Professor Kellaris whether it's possible to get rid of an earworm by passing it off onto someone else. My friend Elizabeth, whose identity I will protect by not mentioning her last name, Longstreth, claims to have achieved tremendous results by walking by coworkers' desks and softly singing, "My name is Luka. I live on the second floor." Of course, Elizabeth does this even when she's not suffering from an earworm, so I only mention it to demonstrate what a malicious person she is.
Professor Kellaris says that while some people swear by this "Tag - you're it!" strategy, no sure-fire solution to Stuck Song Syndrome exists. However, under direct questioning he pointedly refused to deny that he has, in fact, discovered a cure that he jealously guards to protect all his federal funding. True, he did say that he doesn't receive any federal funding. But isn't that exactly what you'd say if you were participating in a top secret Defense Department project to win the War on Terror?
Farfetched, you think? Maybe. But can you imagine if we had the power to permanently embed every potential terrorist's brain with devastating earworms like "Mandy," "Ice, Ice Baby" and "Wind Beneath My Wings?" Wouldn't that be great? Now that's what I'd call letting the dogs out.