What's Your Problem

By Jeffrey Goldberg

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.”

I am a third-generation Japanese American woman, a professional, and a parent. My children go to school with mostly non-Asians, and in the past I’ve occasionally been asked for parenting tips. But the craze over Asian parenting has become much more intense lately. It’s very offensive to me to be asked for parenting secrets, like how to dominate the SATs, especially by people who mistakenly think I’m Chinese. What do I tell these people?

C.T., San Diego, Calif.

Dear C.T.,

You should tell them about the Secret Asian Academic Lucky Happy Fun Diet: a soup, eaten three times daily by the entire family, consisting of bok choy, conger eel, duck tongue, and low-sodium soy sauce. Tell your fellow parents that the soup can be eaten only while sitting in the lotus position, in front of a gong. If this technique fails to satisfy your questioners, tell them you don’t speak English. Or threaten them with your deadly kung fu skills.

Recently, my son asked me to name the greatest movie ever made. I said, “Citizen Kane.” He asked why, and I said, “Well, I don’t know.” I realized I was just repeating the conventional wisdom. I don’t really even like to watch Citizen Kane. I mean, it’s not a movie I would choose to watch on a Saturday night. So why does everyone think it’s so great?

B.F., Manchester, N.H.

Dear B.F.,

For one thing, there’s that great scene in which Zach Galifianakis wakes up from a roofie-induced blackout and discovers Mike Tyson’s tiger in his hotel bathroom. But beyond that, it’s true that Citizen Kane falls into the category of films that are more admired than loved. The cinematography is revolutionary, as is the use of flashbacks, and its self-distancing irony made Orson Welles a director ahead of his time. But that irony—bleakness, even—makes Citizen Kane for some people an unsatisfying movie-watching experience. I would suggest, for slightly more uplifting fare, Night and Fog. Or perhaps Pootie Tang.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/whats-your-problem/308400/