IEEE PULSE presents

Alone With My Thoughts

State of the Art November/December 2021
Author: Art Johnson

They call them earworms, those songs and ditties that roll around in your head whenever there is nothing else going on. Even when you want to be alone, they are always there, whether one wants them or not. And they resist being forgotten. Some are simple little things, jingles that keep ringing in my ears all day and all night long. They can be triggered by some simple reminder, like catching a television or radio ad, hearing children singing familiar songs, or listening to a choir sing a catchy gospel melody. “It’s A Small World” is particularly deadly.

Show tunes like “Old Man River” or “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” sometimes get stuck in my head for days at a time. Some tunes revolving in my head are more sophisticated, but nonetheless just as persistent. The “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from the Wagner opera Tannhäuser, or the “Evening Prayer” piece from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel opera come to mind if I am not careful. These tunes play for a much longer time, but cannot be removed or forgotten any easier than can the shorter ones.

It often takes very little for one of these insidious songs to commence playing in the juke box of my mind. But, once started, they repeat and repeat as if someone keeps inserting more quarters in the coin slot.

Often the unconscious concert continues through the night. Partially waking from my r.e.m. sleep, I am often made aware of the song playing over and over, keeping me from turning over and going back to sleep. This is disconcerting when one is trying to get a good night’s rest.

It takes a very special effort to remove these devilish ditties from my head. I must try to stop them by consciously turning my attention away from what is currently playing to some other just as insistent deliberation. Sometimes, heaven forbid, the only tactic that works to remove the current jingle is to replace it with another that hasn’t been heard for a time. That’s like taking one poison to counteract another. If the first doesn’t kill you, the second one might.

They say that music and mathematics are related in one’s psychic makeup. Unfortunately, I think this is true, because another trait that I have found relating to my earworms is the unwanted tendency to count repetitive sounds that I hear. The ringing of church bells or clock chimes usually triggers the need for me to start counting them as soon as I have become aware of their repetitiveness. One–two–three–four … I will count the peels in the back of my mind whether I want to or not. I can usually be thinking or doing something else at the same time as this counting obsession continues, so it is not so distracting that I cannot function while it is occurring. But, it is somewhat bothersome nonetheless, because, just like listening to tunes play again and again in my mind, it cannot be easily turned off.

What all this means is that my mind has several different dimensions going simultaneously, like layers of skin on an onion. One ply can be peeled off after another, but there is something more underneath. So, when I am by myself, I really am not completely alone. I have an orchestra and a counting clerk to keep me company.

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