Joshua Foer on Trying to Forget Britney Spears

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From this month's edition of "What's Your Problem," which is published in the actual print magazine:

I believe that my brain has only limited space to store information, and I would like to clear it of, for instance, song lyrics that I don't want to remember. Do you know any techniques for forgetting useless information and music?

P.D., New Orleans, La.

Dear P.D.,

Your question is an important one. I recently woke up with Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" in my head. Fortunately, I was soon able to forget it. Unfortunately, it was replaced by the Human League's "(Keep Feeling) Fascination." I asked a memory expert I know, Joshua Foer, the author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, if it is possible to force forgetfulness, particularly of crappy songs. This is his answer: "There's actually a scientific term for jingles that get lodged in your head: earworms. It's probably not the case that having 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' bouncing around your skull is keeping you from mastering multivariate calculus, but that doesn't mean it's not annoying. (Interestingly, a recent study found that women experience earworms for longer than men, and generally find them more annoying. I don't know what to make of that.) A study published earlier this year (the researchers gave subjects the 'Catchy Tunes Questionnaire') found that the worst way to get rid of earworms is to try to get rid of earworms. The more you think about trying to forget them, the deeper they burrow. This is pretty much true about consciously trying to forget anything. There's even a name for the phenomenon: ironic processing. The best advice I've heard for making earworms go away is to just stop being irritated by them, and come to peace with the fact that you're humming Britney Spears."


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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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