"Nikki Minaj Won't Get Out of My Head" or, pathological earworms
August 29, 2018 5:39 PM   Subscribe

For the past 11 months, my autistic 14-year-old daughter has been afflicted with earworms. Neurotypical people can push Nikki Minaj's "Anaconda" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" out of their head, but she can't. This gets in the way of just about everything.

It sounds comical, but it's anything but. We've tried an anti-depressant/anti-obsessive SSRI; we've tried an anti-anxiety drug. Her school's therapist tried talking to her about it. We tried meditation, or rather, we tried to try meditation, but how can you meditate when Nikki Minaj is in your head? (I can't meditate either, fwiw.)

What else can we try? (You are not her doctor.)
posted by musofire to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have specific advice, but it seems that this would fall under the category "intrusive thoughts." Doing some research under that label may be beneficial to you. Does she see a psychologist (not psychiatrist) outside the school therapist? Someone who specializes in disorders that involve intrusive thoughts (PTSD, OCD, anxiety) may be more helpful than a school therapist. This is the sort of thing that can be addressed in therapy, but I wouldn't think a school therapist is likely to be used to dealing with it.
posted by brook horse at 5:47 PM on August 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

Fight earworms with better earworms, is my advice. Things tend to get stuck when we focus on a snippet. This is how the ‘hook’ works, it grabs your brain in part because it’s incomplete.

So what I do is pick a song that 1: I like ok 2: I am not currently obsessed with 3: I have learned it well enough to play it in my head completely, or could sing it entirely in the shower.

Each time the distracting song comes into my head, I sing (or play in my head) the ‘antidote’ completely, and that is a big help to sort of cleanse my brain and move on. Good luck, she can beat this!
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:49 PM on August 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

The traditional advice for this is to play the original song over and over. So you could try it. I'm sorry this is the issue in your life now.
posted by Kalmya at 5:50 PM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am not autistic but I do have OCD/anxiety/intrusive thoughts. I had a Disney song stuck in my head for 2 years when I was a around 12. Time made it go away? But I also started listening to the exact opposite type of music loudly in headphones (unsafely loud, so you know, don't do that) especially as I was falling asleep and starting my day - in my case I got into industrial/goth/rock chicks/punk. So if Nicki Minaj is the problem, classical? old country? Enya? Disney songs (lol)? It occasionally put something else in my head for a moment and allowed me to...unstick...the song almost entirely after time (although unfortunately my silly brain just went searching for the song and found it long buried, so I guess I'm listening to NIN tonight as I fall asleep).

I appreciate you taking this seriously. It was just sort of a joke among everyone when I went through it? But I also didn't get treatment for any of my disorders until much, much later. She's lucky to have support who wants to help fix this.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 5:56 PM on August 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

I find that songs get stuck in my head when I know only a snippet of the song. Oddly, I find that learning all the lyrics tends to unstick it. It's like my brain is fiddling with it because it's incomplete.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:12 PM on August 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

Oh! I also have a very difficult time meditating, BUT around this same time I learned from some weird buy by month club notebook of tips for growing girls - how to style hair, how to apply makeup, how to socialize, how to act when you like someone, how to wash your face, etc - and in it there was a meditation mentioned that I learned didn't work for that for me, but DID work for getting me to sleep. So when the earworm issue was going on I would combine it with the music when falling asleep.

I have never found the exact instructions again, but it's basically count meditation, start at 100, slow your breathing, count back one by one, if any intrusive thought enters, including weird visualizations of the numbers (maybe that's a me problem), start at 100 again. Literally 2 nights ago I used this to get to sleep. If I actually follow the rules I have set, I can't count down past 74 or so before falling asleep even if I have to restart 15 or 20 times.

Apparently you're supposed to be able to count up to 100 and back down to 1 without getting distracted or falling asleep, but fuck that, I say.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 6:12 PM on August 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I was told that the cure for earworms is doing mental math. I take a number and then double it, and then again, and then again until I can't do it anymore. I have no idea about the underlying neurological processes involved, but it works for me.
posted by christinetheslp at 6:15 PM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Previously. Specifically, I came to recommend this approach.
posted by enfa at 6:15 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes! When counting back from 100 doesn't work I move on to mental math under the same principle - count back from 100 in sets of 3 or 7 or 13 or whatever. Also listening to the "opposite music" while doing puzzle games. I had wondered if this is related to the study that playing things like Tetris after traumatic events have helped soldiers not develop as severe PTSD.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 6:19 PM on August 29, 2018

I was a little younger when I stopped casually listening to songs with lyrics pretty much altogether. Instead, I picked songs that I wanted to learn, got those stuck in my head until I had them down, then moved on to the next one. This was very useful for orchestra and choir, as I would learn all the parts. You can also set to music any other information you'd like to learn, such as lines of a play, or vocabulary lists. Basically, you don't fight it, but you do direct it. I still get caught out by earworms that pop up in movies/store music/other people's devices, but I can get them out of my head quickly by redirecting to my working worm.

This substitution method has helped me with other types of intrusive thoughts, such as images from traumatic events.
posted by notquitemaryann at 6:29 PM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

I get HORRIBLE earworms, and am tortured by them much more than it sounds like others are (I'm also a musician, which means sometimes they're earworms of me mangling the song in question).

I've noticed a few things about my pattern:
-it happens when I haven't been listening to music much, and something gets stuck. It's always a sign that it's time to find new music to listen to.

-I remember that at 12, this happened a lot, it was torturous, and I didn't really know that i had options for other music to listen to, beyond the catchy pop that I heard everywhere (which I detested for the earworm issue). Getting rid of one pop earworm by way of another pop earworm would not have been fun for me. No idea if any of that would apply to a kid today, who probably has an easier time finding out about other music options because of the internet, but at 12, they may not know that there's other/better music.

-I have synaesthesia, which can be linked to very vivid musical imagery and other perceptual issues, and I keep thinking that's linked both to me enjoying being a musician and to the horrible earworm intrusions. Synaesthesia is very common, like 1 in 20 people. Synaesthesia can be very strong and very intrusive in childhood- it tends to subside as neural pruning develops in puberty. I'm not sure there's anything practical you'd gain by learning whether or not your kid has synaesthesia, but I found that information very useful as an explanation to myself for why I was so much more annoyed by earworms for instance.
posted by twoplussix at 6:29 PM on August 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I came to push the technique I pushed in the previously linked by enfa above:

Listen to the whole song you're afflicted with. Then listen to a second song you like by the same artist. Then listen to a third, different song. So after "Thriller" I might listen to "Billie Jean" (same era MJ) and then, I dunno, jump to something by Paul McCartney from the same era? The trick is that you have to listen to all three complete songs. You can't shortcut it. There's something about getting to the end of each song that seems to close the door on the earworm and mostly keep it closed.

I'm an Old and I couldn't name a second song by Nicki Minaj, so I can't help you with the specifics there.
posted by fedward at 6:55 PM on August 29, 2018

I think it was guitarist Leo Kottke who says that the trick is to hear the melody backwards; but I don't think most people can do that as easily as he can
posted by thelonius at 6:58 PM on August 29, 2018

Could she learn the songs on the piano, guitar or another instrument? She'd start hearing the songs differently, as individual parts rather than a whole, and that might help (or just be a good skill/new interest to add to her life!)

I'm neurotypical but deal with intrusive thoughts as part of my mental illness. EMDR, medicine, and good talk therapy have helped with those for me but I suffered a lot as a child and teen without any professional help or family support. I know this is hard and scary right now for you and your daughter but it will eventually go away: for me, acknowledging that a current thought/mindset 1) sucks but 2) will eventually go away (to be replaced by a different one, bah! lol) really helps. I know you're a very caring parent and I'm sure you tell your daughter this frequently and approach such challenges with love and patience. Still, especially in situations like this, it never hurts to tell her frequently that this is one step in her growing up and getting to know herself and her mind better, that such growth can be painful and awkward but gets us to better places of self-knowledge and happiness. That the same mind that makes things like this hard also makes other things in life beautiful and actually easier! So it's genuinely yucky now but, in the long run, temporary, and that you love her so much. I know my situation was different but I certainly wish my well-intentioned parents had told me, a young woman with a bright but often troubled mind, that much more frequently!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:06 PM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

A trick I heard many years ago is that part of the problem is that you're stuck in the repetitive verses, so you need to 'play' through the end of the song, make it finish like the end of an act in a musical with a big instrumental flourish if you have to, but the ending had to play out in your mind.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:10 PM on August 29, 2018

They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse in your Soul" somehow works as an earworm fixer for me.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:26 PM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

We tried meditation, or rather, we tried to try meditation, but how can you meditate when Nikki Minaj is in your head? (I can't meditate either, fwiw.)

If you and your daughter are unable to clear your minds of thoughts and distractions, and keep forgetting what you're doing during meditation, that is 100% normal, and consistent with what I experienced when I started meditating. The earlier stages are more about observing the distractions as they arise, noting them, and allowing them to pass away. When you experience a strong pervasive thought like an earworm, you can even choose to make it the object you focus on during meditation.

I was able to eliminate pervasive negative self-talk and anxiety from my life through the use of meditation. I've been practicing for a year now and would encourage you to do some reading and give it another try. My go-to reference is The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. If you're not 100% sure about it, maybe you can find a copy at a library.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:45 PM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

This sounds terrible, and it may not work at all for your daughter, but to cope, I just became a music aficionado and started learning entire songs from memory and played it back in my head. I then would try to learn instrumental or classical music and play it from memory, and then listened to ambient music or sound therapy with normal sounds and then try to play it back. The sheer level of concentration and auditory memory required helped break me out of ear worms and tune my inner radio to silence and regular sounds. Meditation was easier for me because I learned from that that meditation is all about strengthening your attention muscle and redirecting back towards mindfulness and quiet.
posted by yueliang at 8:11 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Gosh, poor kid. Some other posters have had good advice. I wonder if music lessons could be good for her. Maybe if she had other songs in her head, because she was learning them, it might block out the songs she hates. She also might start making her own songs. It may be that she has an innate focus for music, and some sort of music-based art therapy could be great for her. It could be an instrument or singing. Or maybe try something like Guitar Hero, or another music game? Of course I say all this without knowing if she's capable of these things, but they're ideas.

Those two songs strike me as music that's kind of forced on you by the culture at large, you're gonna hear them whether you want to or not. I wonder if she's found the music that she personally enjoys. It may be that if she does, she can chase out the stuck songs with songs she prefers.

They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse in your Soul" somehow works as an earworm fixer for me.

Strangely enough, that specific song is the exact opposite for me. The first time I heard it it made me intensely, perhaps irrationally angry, and to this day it'll get stuck in my head until I kind of wanna die. (That and their freaking song about the guy who wants a shoehorn with teeth. Ugh, TMBG, why do you torture me so?) So while Birdhouse may have worked for fingersandtoes, it's the last song I'd ever foist on this kid!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:21 PM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

What about EMDR?
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:24 PM on August 29, 2018

I identify with your kid. My favorite anti-earworm strategies are:

1. replace - After struggling with this myself, I came up with something that is usually the perfect anti-earworm for me. It's another song that's super catchy, that I've been listening to it since I was a kid, and it's one of my all-time favorite songs. It's also both really happy and kinda sad, in the version I know best (by Willie Nelson) - a nice added complexity. When I get something stuck in my head, I think of this song, just basically giving myself something else to think about. If the earworm comes back, I think to myself, nope - back to "Blue Skies".

2. distract - I play something super complicated and interesting, ideally music that is new to me (Spotify is great for finding new music). Lately, that has included 50s-60s jazz, modern Latin jazz, and Latin music in general. Pop music is often super basic. Distract the brain with a whole lot of interestingness, and it may stop getting stuck in a rut.

3. delay - I get in my studio and play my own music, preferably something with a lot of delay =)
posted by acridrabbit at 8:58 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Dirty words omitted), but I'm sorry. ADHD owner of a brain radio DJ that never takes a station break here. I had Starships stuck in my head for a few months a couple of years ago, and that was bad enough. At least Starships is catchy and has a regular beat and nobody looks at you like a monster if you leave out the bad words when you unconsciously sing it in the frozen foods aisle. It still shows up now and then, but I enjoy it. I've had Thriller stuck occasionally, but not regularly. Well, it is stuck now, but it'll be gone soon enough. I try very hard to keep to things that I enjoy singing and Thriller is outside of my comfortable vocal range. Since mid-July the predominant song has been Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks.

For meditation, the only thing that I could stand at that age was chanting, or even better chanting while walking mindfully. Quiet, reflective meditation was a hell of whatever my brain radio had going at the time turned up to 11 and self-recrimination that I couldn't do it right.

I still can't really do quiet. I have to have an audiobook on to sleep.

SSRIs and anything else given for anxiety has never touched it. Neither did mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, or sleeping meds. Not even twilight sedation (sang through getting my wisdom teeth out). The only meds that have ever helped are stimulants to treat the ADHD, and my mind isn't quiet but I can hear myself think and I can relax. Everyone is different, and I had to try a lot of meds. But if seratonin meds don't work, try another neurotransmitter or two. Dopamine and norepinephrine meds work for me, anything that messes with seratonin tends to make me worse.

I have had songs stuck in my head for months at a time too. When that has happened I could usually briefly get a break from the offending song by being immersed in other music or a movie, but when it was over That Song would just show back up. Until I got so used to it that I was startled to notice that I'd moved on to the more common variety show influenced by my media diet or my subconscious trying to tell me that I am feeling anxious or something. Panic-adjacent high energy anxiety is The Supremes You Keep Me Hanging On, by the way.

Anyway, after a few of those I've gotten pretty good at not letting anything get too deeply stuck. One thing is to put That Song into a playlist of other songs and play the whole damn thing regularly. It trains my brain to move on. Also repeating, remixes, watching the video of, covers of, and just plain singing That Song. In this case I'd add in the parent song, Baby Got Back, to the playlist. Which I've had stuck and would be better than Anaconda. But following it with other stuff is important to help it process out. Like fiber for the ears. Get in some other genres and stretch horizons. Singing other songs can help distract too. Hell is songs without words, like Daft Punk's Da Funk. I'm an alto, not a beatboxer. Conversely, once in a while a wordless cover can jolt things out of their track. I was very glad when 2cellos did a cover of Despacito. That song is a plague even if you like it.

Which I now have to go listen to because I said Despacito. I know it sucks. I wish I has the magic answer for you. But I really have to go get flipping Despecito out of my head before it gets set in again.
posted by monopas at 9:37 PM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Take the meter and the lyrics and do mental math with them. How many syllables per beat, how many beats per measure, how many letters per word, can you divide by three, can you divide by four, can you divide by five? Is the beat divisible by the same numbers as the syllables or letters? If not what is the differential? How about it you count I and the dot separately? How about contractions. How about if you include harmonies with truncated lyrics?

This is the only way I can get songs out of my head and I was a singer for many years so it was a real problem getting mind to stfu about songs.
posted by fshgrl at 9:41 PM on August 29, 2018

Oh yes, and as much as I ever desperately want them to, other people's anti-earworm songs pretty much never work for me. At best, I've listened to something that I might not have heard before. At worst, I now have the Final Jeopardy music stuck in my head and that does not make for a nice theme song to one's day.

Numbers were not helpful either, much like reflective meditation I feel like I'm doing it wrong and the music gets louder. Or I get the catchy sequential parts of the pinball numbers song from Sesame Street stuck for a while.

But have her try everything she's willing to do, because this is how you find your coping mechanisms.

Oh nice. The pinball numbers song cast out the last one I mentioned above. Thank fork.
posted by monopas at 9:49 PM on August 29, 2018

My partner has to deal with intrusive thoughts, anxiety, OCD and so on. She is similarly affected by music, although not in the form of ear worms. In her case the problem is the underlying emotional aspects of music, like hearing something in a minor key suddenly clicks her brain over into depressive loops. This is not limited to depression. Angry music can maker her angry. Happy, energetic music can make her manic. Sometimes her brain latches onto specific song lyrics and they loop around in her head and sort of become her own thoughts. She is in therapy and has learned different mindfulness techniques over the years that help her regain control. The following suggestions are from her.

* Mindfulness techniques, as mentioned. She doesn't have any specific recommendations other than to try different ones (a therapist might be able to recommend some) until you find some that work. She find that mantra-based meditation works for her to drown out song lyrics. The whole not thinking and centering yourself kind of meditation doesn't work for her because the whole problem is that she can't stop thinking about something so she finds it easier to supplant it with something she is in control of (her mantra).

* Avoiding music is a big one for her. She can usually tell when she is in a mental state where she is susceptible to her specific problem.

* Changing her own listening habits. For her, dubstep of all things, has been a really positive change in her life. She likes the really deep kind and not the noisy video gamer kind. The reason she likes it is that it has a kind of repetitive groove that she can focus on. She also likes that there are rarely any lyrics and that music isn't particularly emotionally manipulative. It's almost all the same BPM and doesn't really get you down or pumped or suddenly get fast or slow. She always has her headphones with her and will pop them on if she needs to. If dubstep doesn't work for her, maybe other types of music that have similar qualities such as minimalism are worth exploring.

* Activity can help. There are two types that work for her: simple things that she can fixate on, like cutting out paper shapes (she makes paper art), and physical activity that is strenuous enough that she gets into her body and out of her head (running, climbing, etc.)

Hope there is something in there that helps.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 10:06 PM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Much much better full collection of the Pinball Number Song, all 2-12 sequentially.

My mother started singing The Sound of Music. She had that stuck in her head for a long time. We are watching all 12:12 of the Pinball Song now.

I wish this was a joke.
posted by monopas at 10:15 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another thing that helps me is heading down to the back shed in order to attempt to play the goddamn earworm out on the drum kit. It either doesn't work at all due to my manifest inadequacy as a drummer, which gets rid of the earworm and replaces it with something that does come out through the kit, or it does work in a way that's deeply satisfying.
posted by flabdablet at 10:25 PM on August 29, 2018

Sometimes I'll get two overlapping ear worms, which is awful, but your kids case sounds way worse. some peeps ahead said math - which is what i recomend. i do multiplication, since it's really hard for me - so maybe it's not the math but just a task that makes you really strain your brain? like capitals of countries or going through the states in alphabetical order? listing animals with short tails?
posted by speakeasy at 10:26 PM on August 29, 2018

The method that always works for me is to sing three lines from three different Roy Orbison songs in quick succession, i.e. "Only the lonely, dum dum dum dum de do wah / Crying over you / Pretty woman, walking down the street". I've no idea why this works, but it seems pretty foolproof. Maybe your kid could try with three distinctive lines from songs she knows well?
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 11:01 PM on August 29, 2018

Aside from things that are specifically earworm-busters, OCD type symptoms seem for some reason to be highly responsive to hormones. I wouldn't say that I have OCD--except for one or two days a month when I'm super vulnerable to a pure-O death spiral where for some reason my particular brand of awful is always that I think bad things are happening to my cats. Adolescence being what it is... if she's up to it, it might be worth first of all trying to chart what days are particularly bad to see if there are patterns, and second of all it might be worth looking into hormonal birth control to help even things out and see if things like this improve.
posted by Sequence at 12:49 AM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

^ That's an interesting point. Pregnancy and childbirth gave me some of the more OCD moments (like probably clinically diagnosable) in my life. Not saying your child is pregnant, just that hormones might be an avenue to consider if you haven't already.
posted by slidell at 2:04 AM on August 30, 2018

It may be nothing, but for me one of the side-effects of being on an SSRI has been a greater propensity to get earwormed.
posted by Chairboy at 3:06 AM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm autistic if that makes a difference, and my brain loves having a melody to chew on obsessively. Around her age there was maybe a year when I had Tomorrow Never Knows stuck in my head anytime I wasn't playing or listening to something else. I don't think I found it as distressing as your daughter does, it was more on the level of my stims or my special interests — just another weird-ass thing my brain likes to do.

One way I've gotten some control over it is to make up my own music in my head. Sometimes I write complete songs, sometimes I just build up little loops or repetitive ditties and think them to myself over and over, sometimes I think of harmony parts that go with whatever pop song is stuck in my head, or synchronize stims to the music in different ways. (A perennial favorite is clenching my teeth in rhythm to the song, and then switching to different counter-rhythms.) It's not always a creative or artistic thing — sometimes it's just playing tetris with notes and rhythms, noticing what fits where and moving things around.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:45 AM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am also tormented by earworms -- sometimes for months on end (I'm lookin' at you, Beastie Boys - Get It Together)

Lately I have had success using distraction. I conjure a vivid & pleasant memory of when a momma duck brought her ducklings withing a foot of where I was sitting. I watched them for 15 minutes and was one of the the purest times of joy I have experienced as an adult.

So I have tried to train myself so when the song pops in I immediately think about the baby ducks and it seems to be working.

I hope your daughter can take some comfort in knowing that she is not alone.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 7:25 AM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is there any kind of useful ear worm that can be substituted? Can she learn some new songs, listen to high quality music, learn poems, learn the Gettysburg Address, memorize stuff needed for school or life? Music player with learning podcasts, good music. Not to say Nicki Minaj is not good music, but different music, esp. complex. I have been listening to Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert, which I find complex and absorbing, and snippets of it lodge in my head but not horribly. Or chants with affirming messages, to catchy tunes. I learned the Declaration of Independence from The Fifth Dimension.

I just went to a workshop that included music, and am replaying a few phrases. Would have been convenient to work on that 1 song with difficult lyrics when I needed to learn them. Long term, learning to harness the brain for the stuff you want is a great skill.
posted by theora55 at 3:52 PM on August 30, 2018

Have you tried any music/listening therapies before (not for this specifically)? My son is on the autism spectrum and we have used The Listening Program for improvement in auditory processing and Safe and Sound Protocol for language/social issues. I bet something like these would help very much since they work directly on the areas of the brain that process auditory information.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:03 PM on August 30, 2018

I don't know how it will help solve the problem you're having, but there does seem to be a positive correlation between autism and synthesia. Perhaps it would at least help you locate others who have similar experiences to see how they deal with them.

On that tack, here is an interesting experience by someone with strong synesthesia and who also seems to have very strong, but controllable, aural experiences similar to earworms.
posted by flug at 2:21 AM on August 31, 2018

One idea about how earworms might work is related to short-term auditory memory, sometimes called echoic memory. This leads to some possible solutions mentioned above like doing mental math--the idea being to flood the short-term memory area with other stimuli.

This paper has some other insights into intrusive auditory thoughts and how they might be addressed.

Also, for what it's worth, I once had a friend with Tourette's Syndrome who said that she heard music going on inside her head constantly, all day long. I don't really know if that was an earworm per se or more new music she was constantly inventing or music she'd previously heard being re-heard. Whichever it was, she said it went on constantly yet somehow she'd made peace with it and even seemed to enjoy it to a degree. One thing that frustrated her is that she heard it all day long every day, yet didn't have enough music experience or education to (for example) write down or communicate to other people even a little bit of it.

Somewhat similar to this example.

I know these examples aren't anything like easy or simple solutions but they may give you a few different directions to think about or approach this issue from.
posted by flug at 2:43 AM on August 31, 2018

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