Joshua Foer on Trying to Forget Britney Spears

By Jeffrey Goldberg

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."


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/03/joshua-foer-on-trying-to-forget-britney-spears/72222/