Why are some songs and melodies “stuck” to us?

Songs that we have to listen to over and over again, Melodies that we mentally hum all day long, songs that we sing in a low voice whenever we have the chance … if there is one characteristic that defines the potential of music in our lives, that is ‘is that it hangs on us, it sticks to us without any kind of pity.

It happens, of course, with many simple and catchy melodies, but even the fruits of the greatest technical virtuosity and the most complex pieces of music are able to make us think of all the time. simply there are melodies that are practically tattooed on our brain. Why is this happening?

When the music stays it doesn’t come out of our head

some experts refer to the phenomenon of sticky music as a product of “earworm” activity, or earworms. The image of parasites nesting in our brains and leaving their eggs there is quite unpleasant, but luckily it is only a metaphor. The idea is that music enters our nervous system through the ears and, once there, changes the way our neurons communicate with each other, creating a looping dynamic.

In this way, it is enough that at a given moment, an external stimulus enters our brain (in this case, a melody) for its effects to be perpetuated over time, leaving a clear trace: our propensity to reproduce this stimulus over and over again, transformed into memory.

How can this happen? The science behind catchy melodies

A few years ago, researchers at Dartmouth College shed light on the mystery of how our brains can repeatedly simulate the entry of a melody into our nervous system when our ears have already stopped recording. this type of stimulus.

An experiment to recognize what is going on in the brain

To do this, they performed an experiment: having a series of volunteers listen to music while their brains are scanned in real time to see which areas of it are activated more than others at any given time.

To this end, participants were first asked to choose a series of songs that were familiar to them and others that they had never heard before, so that everyone could listen to a personalized list of musical tracks. Once the volunteers started listening to the music, the researchers included a surprise that hadn’t been explained before: Sometimes the music would stop ringing for three or four seconds.

In this way, the researchers they were able to verify that the part of the brain responsible for processing information related to music is what is called the auditory cortex., And that he continues to be active during those times when the music stops while it is familiar, while its activity is interrupted when what stops ringing is unfamiliar music. In other words, when music resonates with us, our brain automatically takes care of filling in the blanks, without us having to struggle with it.

A musical echo that cannot be stopped

What does the previous sidewalk of this music tell us we can’t get out of our heads? First, it tells us that the mental processes that we associate with the perception of sensory stimuli can go in the opposite direction to the typical one. In other words, it can produce from the brain in general to areas of the nervous system that specialize in processing sound patterns, because our brains have been shown to “keep singing on their own”.

Second, it shows that external stimuli can leave a mark on our brain that, even if at the beginning we manage to ignore them, they remain latent and can make us enter a loop, in the same way that by stirring the water with a stick we can create vortices that remain even when we do not touch plus water.

Neurons that press “play” automatically

If our brain is tasked with replicating how our neurons in the auditory cortex were activated when we listened to music entering through our ears, it will also be able to create the chain reaction that results from this pattern of activation of several coordinated neurons. with each other to process the music … which means they re-mix the ingredients necessary for the loop to reappear in the future.

To find out why the loop arises, it will be necessary to continue research, but it is highly likely that it has to do with how certain stimuli create chemical bonds (more or less permanent) between neurons.

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