Richard G. Petty, MD


I often think that I’m a lucky fellow to be bilingual in English and German. There are some priceless words in German that just don’t translate. It’s one of the reasons that so many books and papers translated from German become nonsensical when back translated. That is, translated from German into English and then back into German again.

There are some wonderful examples in the medical and psychiatric literature. English speaking psychiatrists are taught about “Schneider’s First Rank Features.” Which is a massive misquotation. And some of the collected works of Carl Jung are “interesting” in English.

There is a lovely German word – Ohrwurm – that can best be translated as “ear worm,” though in German it has a rather richer sense. The term was popularized by James Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, to describe a song stuck in one’s head. Particularly an annoying one. I’m sure that we’ve all had them: some song or tune that you just can’t get out of your head.

Mark Twain wrote in a short story about an annoying ”jingling rhyme” that became indelibly lodged in the author’s mind until he passed the curse along to another hapless victim!

I first saw this research being talked about three years ago, in an article on the BBC website. At the time Professor Kellaris described the ohrwurm as "A cognitive itch is a kind of metaphor that explains how these songs get stuck in our head."

Kellaris has identified three major influences on whether or not a song stays stuck in your brain:

  1. Repetition:
  2. Musical simplicity:
  3. Incongruity: This one is very interesting and gives us another clue about why ohrwurms form. When a song does something unexpected, it can also spark a cognitive “itch.” Kellaris cites examples like the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck’s "Take Five" or the song "America" from West Side Story. Unpredictable melodic patterns or an unexpectedly articulated individual note can have the same impact.

Marketers and writers of pop songs are very interested in understanding how and why some tunes just get stuck in our heads. There have been some songwriters and producers who have created a load of ohrwurms. You may remember the string of hits produced by Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman  in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is even some brain imaging work going on to try and unlock the mechanisms responsible.

The best cures for a nagging ohrwurm appear to be to listen to the whole tune or song. And at the same time to think of something annoying. It can also go away with the simple technique of gently tapping the side of your hand: it is sometimes a manifestation of psychological reversal.

One of the reasons for being interested in ohrwurms, is that it is interesting to find out why things get stuck in our heads. Understanding the lowly ohrwurm may have some important implications for understanding PTSD and some kinds of addiction.

So what’s you best or most irritating ohrwurm?

“I was in yoga the other day.  I was in full lotus position.  My chakras were all aligned.  My mind is cleared of all clatter and I’m looking out of my third eye and everything that I’m supposed to be doing.  It’s amazing what comes up, when you sit in that silence.  "Mama keeps whites bright like the sunlight, Mama’s got the magic of Clorox 2.”
Ellen DeGeneres (American Actor and Comedian, 1958-)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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