Earworms and white bears

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Zits for 8/31/2013:

The OED glosses earworm as "A catchy tune or piece of music (or occas. a word or phrase) which persistently stays in a person's mind, esp. to the point of irritation". I was surprised to see that the earliest citations are from 1991, in a translation from German and an explicit reference to a German original:

1991   J. Barrett tr. G. Weil Bride Price 53   In the vernacular, it's called an ‘earworm’—words, bits of music that won't leave you alone.
1991   Poetry Aug. 267   Earworm. A German phrase for a tune you cannot get out of your head.

But backing up the theory that earworm is a recent calque (i.e. borrowing-by-literal-translation) from German, Paul McFedries' "Word Spy" provides a quote from Howard Rheingold, "Untranslatable words," The Whole Earth Review, December 22, 1987:

The Germans use the word Ohrwurm (rhymes with "door worm," where the "w" is pronounced like a "v") to denote these cognitively infectious musical agents. Whenever somebody complains to you that he just can't keep the latest pop tune from running through his head, tell him he can dispel it by calling it by name and by thinking about the original German meaning, which captures some of the mnemonicalli [sic] parasitical connotations of the word, for Ohrwurm literally means "ear worm" and is also used to refer to a kind of worm that can crawl into the ear.

Anyhow, there's been quite a bit of scientific research on earworms over the past few years; and earworm science seems to be adopting the more dignified and formal phrase "involuntary musical imagery", which is less evocative but does have the advantage of distinguishing papers on this topic from those dealing with Heliothis zea:

C. Philip Beaman & Tim Williams, "Earworms (Stuck Songs)", British Journal of Psychology 101.4, 2010.
A.R. Halpern & J.C. Bartlett,"The persistence of musical memories: A descriptive study of earworms", Music Perception 2011
Lassi A. Liikkanen, "Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery", Psychology of Music, 40(2), 2012.
V.J. Williamson  et al., "How do 'earworms' start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery", Psychology of Music40(3), 2012.
Freya Bailes, "Arousal, Valence and the Involuntary Musical Image", Proc. 12th Int. Conf. Mus. Perc. 2012
Georgia Floridou et al., "Contracting Earworms: The Roles of Personality and Musicality", Proc. 12th Int. Conf. Mus. Perc. 2012
V.J. Williamson & D. Müllensiefen, "Earworms from three angles: Situational antecedents, Personality predisposition and the quest for a musical formula",  Proc. 12th Int. Conf. Mus. Perc. 2012
Lassi A. Kiikkanen, "Inducing involuntary musical imagery: An experimental study", Musicae Scientiae 2012
Ira E. Hyman Jr. et al., "Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head", Applied Cognitive Psychology 2013
C. Philip Beaman & Tim Williams, "Individual differences in mental control predict involuntary musical imagery", Musicae Scientiae 2013.

The abstract for that last paper is especially interesting:

The experience of earworms, a type of involuntary musical imagery, may reflect a systematic failure in mental control. This study focused on how individual differences in each of two factors, schizotypy, or “openness to experience”, and thought suppression might relate to the appearance of the involuntary musical image (earworm). Schizotypy was measured by Raine’s schizotypal personality questionnaire (SPQ; Raine, 1991) and thought suppression was measured by the White Bear Suppression Inventory (WBSI; Wegner & Zanakos, 1994). Each was found to contribute independently to the overall experience of involuntary musical imagery. Schizotypy was correlated with the length and disruptiveness of earworms, the difficulty with which they were dismissed and the worry they caused, but was not correlated with the frequency of such intrusive imagery. In turn, schizotypy was predicted by suppression and intrusion components of WBSI. The WBSI is associated with the length, disruptiveness, difficulty dismissing and interference but not with the worry caused or the frequency of earworms. The assumption of “ownership” of earworms was also found to affect the extent to which the earworms were considered worrying. Multiple regression analysis showed that both schizotypy and the WBSI predicted the difficulty with which unwanted musical images were dismissed, but that the WBSI accounted for additional variance on top of that accounted for by schizotypy. Finally we consider how earworm-management might relate to wider cognitive processes.

I like the phrase "earworm management" — surely it deserves a chapter in marketing textbooks, and maybe even a journal of its own, Frontiers in Earworm Management or something like that.  But what really caught my attention was the White Bear Suppression Inventory, which I've somehow managed to miss until now.

The WBSI was introduced in Daniel Wegner and Sophia Zanakos, "Chronic Thought Suppression", Journal of Personality, 1994. You can administer it to yourself here.

But curiously, Wegner and Zanakos didn't give a reason in that paper for calling their test instrument the "White Bear Suppression Inventory" rather than the "Blue Duck Suppression Inventory" or whatever. My first thought was that the white bear must come from Chapter 3.XLIII of Tristram Shandy (1759), although Sterne's white bear thoughts are more obsessive than intrusive:

My father took a single turn across the room, then sat down, and finished the chapter.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was? If it was not? What would follow?—If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?

Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child's memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain, how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.—Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:—No, an' please your honour, replied the corporal.—But thou couldst discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?—How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?—'Tis the fact I want, replied my father,—and the possibility of it is as follows.

A White Bear! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must, or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?

—Is the white bear worth seeing?—

—Is there no sin in it?—

Is it better than a Black One?

And the start of Chapter 3.XLV:

When my father had danced his white bear backwards and forwards through half a dozen pages, he closed the book for good an' all,—and in a kind of triumph redelivered it into Trim's hand, with a nod to lay it upon the 'scrutoire, where he found it.—Tristram, said he, shall be made to conjugate every word in the dictionary, backwards and forwards the same way;—every word, Yorick, by this means, you see, is converted into a thesis or an hypothesis;—every thesis and hypothesis have an off-spring of propositions;—and each proposition has its own consequences and conclusions; every one of which leads the mind on again, into fresh tracks of enquiries and doubtings.—The force of this engine, added my father, is incredible in opening a child's head.—'Tis enough, brother Shandy, cried my uncle Toby, to burst it into a thousand splinters.—

So I wondered, did an association between white bears and obsessive thought-intrusions become a commonplace among psychologists at some point before 1994? If so, how did it happen and who did it?

One clue can be found in Daniel Wegner et al., "Paradoxical effects of thought suppression", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987:

It is sometimes tempting to wish one's thoughts away. Unpleasant thoughts, ideas that are inappropriate to the moment, or images that may instigate unwanted behaviors each can become the focus of a desire for avoidance. Whether one is trying not to think of a traumatic event, however, or is merely attempting to avoid the thought of food while on a diet, it seems that thought suppression is not easy. It is said, for instance, that when the young Dostoyevski challenged his brother not to think of a white bear, the child was perplexed for a long while. Contemporary psychology has not focused much inquiry on such puzzling yet important phenomena, and our research was designed to initiate such investigation.

And more information can be found in Daniel Wegner and David Schneider, "The White Bear Story", Psychological Inquiry 2003:

There are several stories that could be told about where the white bear article (Wegner et al., 1987) came from. The obvious ones are that (a) Freud (e.g. 1924) thought of all this long ago and developed it into a grand theory that informed an entire century of psychology and (b) both Dostoyevsky (1955) and Tolstoy (see Simmons, 1949) wrote about how difficult it is to avoid thinking about a white bear. A healthy shot of Freud mixed with a dash of Russian literature, all poured over the crushed ice of the cognitive revolution, and you have the white bear cocktail.

Here's another story. Two social psychologists at different universities in San Antonio get together to chat. Both are interested in person perception and self-perception, and one had read a quote from Dostoyevsky about white bears years before (unfortunately, in a Playboy magazine in college). The other had been thinking about people's inabilities to control strong emotions.

So I was curious to see what Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had to say about white bears. And I was not surprised to learn that the contexts of their discussions were different from one another, and were emotionally and intellectually richer than the simple question of involuntary or intrusive thoughts. Dostoyevsky is interested in whether genuine altruism is possible; and Tolstoy is concerned with the problem of getting a headstrong adolescent to focus on schoolwork.

The original Dostoyevsky reference is from "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" (1863), and in David Patterson's translation, it's a "polar bear" that you should try not to think of — the "white bear" version is apparently from an earlier translation.

Understand me: voluntary, completely conscious self-sacrifice imposed by no one, sacrifice of the self for the sake of all, is, in my opinion, a sign of the very highest development of the personality, of the very height of its power, the highest form of self-mastery, the greatest freedom of one's will. […] But there is one hair here, a very fine hair, which, if it falls into the mechanism, will at once crack and destroy everything. Namely: the misfortune to have even the slightest calculation for one's own advantage. […] The sacrifice must be made in just such a way as to offer all and even wish that you receive nothing in return, that no one will in any way be obligated to you. How is this to be done? After all, it is like trying not to think of a polar bear. Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. So how is it to be done? There is no way it can be done, but rather it must happen of itself; it must be present in one's nature, unconsciously a part of the nature of the whole race, in a word: for there to be a principle of brotherly love there must be love.

Tolstoy's unavoidable bear comes up in Wisdom of Children (1885?), in a section titled "On Education":

Mother: I have just heard from the director of the school that you have got a bad mark again. That won't do, Nikolenka. It must be one thing or the other: learn or not learn.

Nicholas: I'll stick to the one  I cannot, I cannot, I cannot learn. For God's sake, let me go. I cannot learn.

Mother: You cannot learn?

Nicholas: I cannot. It won't get into my head.

Mother: That is because your head is full of nonsense. Don't think about all your stupid things, but concentrate your mind on the lessons you have to learn.

Nicholas: Mother, I am talking seriously. Take me away from school. I wish for nothing else in the world but to get rid of that dreadful school, of that treadmill! I can't stand it.

Mother: But what would you do out of school ?

Nicholas: That is my own business.

Mother: It is not your own business, but mine. I have to answer to God for you. I must give you an education.


Mother: I forbid you to speak like that. How dare you! Go away! You will see —

Nicholas: Very well — I will go. I am not afraid of whatever comes, and I don't want anything from you. (Dashes out of the room and bangs the door.)

Mother: (to herself.) How unhappy he makes me. I know exactly how it has all come about. It is all because he does not think about the things he ought to do, and his head is full of nothing but his own stupid interests, his dogs, and his hens.

Katia: But, mother, you remember the tale you told me: how impossible it is not to think about the white polar bear when you are told not to.

Mother: I am not speaking of that; I say a boy has to learn when he is told to.

Katia: But he says he cannot.

Mother: That's nonsense.

Now I wonder: Did Tolstoy get his "(don't) think of a white bear" meme from Dostoyevsky? and did Dostoyevsky get it from Sterne? Or were their white bears independent inventions? Or was there some earlier white bear folk-meme that fed them all? This could lead somewhere


  1. David Denison said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 7:51 am

    On earworms there's also Olver Sacks's book Musicophilia, chapter 5.

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    Lately, "pink elephant" has caught up to "white bear" as an unavoidable object of thought.

    [(myl) Presumably George Lakoff's book is either cause or effect here…]

  3. FM said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    I suspect the white bear came from a folk-meme. My own fallback animal-not-to-think-of is the monkey with a blue behind, from Leonid Solovyov's brilliant Tale of Hodja Nasreddin.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    This is a fascinating post! But what is "mnemonicalli" all about?

    [(myl) Apparently a typo. It's in Paul McFedries' presentation of the quotation from Howard Reingold.]

  5. languagehat said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    To dispose of the nomenclatural issue first: the Russian phrase corresponding to "polar bear" is "белый медведь," literally 'white bear.' The phrase "white bear" has some currency in English as well (OED: 1600 R. Hakluyt tr. in Princ. Navigations III. 6 "The soile is barren in some places,..but it is full of white beares"; 1823 Canad. Mag. I. 394 "The great white bear takes refuge in the most icy climates"; 1860 P. H. Gosse Romance Nat. Hist. 62 "The white bear, seated on a solitary iceberg in the Polar Sea"; etc.), so I don't know whether the earlier translators were being overliteral or using the alternate term; at any rate, "white bear" is useful in this context as being more vivid to the senses and less cluttered with other associations than "polar bear."

    Now, as to Tolstoy, he says in his unfinished memoirs that his brother Nikolenka used to play a game with him in which he told little Lyova to "stand in a corner and not think of a white/polar bear" («стать в угол и не думать о белом медведе»). This is presumably the source of the image for him; whether his brother had read Sterne is probably impossible to determine, though Sterne was extremely popular among literary circles in early-nineteenth-century Russia. As for Dostoyevsky, there is no entry for Sterne in Joseph Frank's magisterial biography of him, for what that's worth.

  6. Ton van der Wouden said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    German Ohrwurm refers to what is called earwig in English.

  7. Mark Dowson said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 10:21 am

    I've always found that "Greensleeves" will drive out a musical earworm without sticking itself – but this may not work for others. I look forward to a paper reporting the result of experiments using this or other anti-earworms.

    On the "White Bear" topic: Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow has a fox "…run three times around the building without thinking of a fox, and you can cure anything"

  8. marie-lucie said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    In French too the usual name for a polar bear is un ours blanc, a white bear. The polar bear's whiteness is its most obvious difference from other, black or brown bears living on the same continents. "Polar" refers to its usual location, not its appearance. The translation "polar bear" for a Russian or French source is unnecessarily scientific in the context of the anecdotes.

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    I always have a tune running through my head, awake or dreaming. For years I assumed this was normal. (As to whether it reflects a systematic failure in mental control, I couldn't possibly comment.)

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    And there's a nice one (mis)associated with Mark Twain:

  11. Leslie said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    I've loved the German term Ohrwurm (and its Dutch equivalent oorworm) since I first heard them, so I've been glad that this term has picked up in English. It's so much simpler than 'song stuck in my head', and the meaning is obvious too.

    The German a capella band the Wiseguys have a song called Ohrwurm about a guy who has one and he goes a bit nuts and it adversely affects his life. 'Hallo, hallo, ich bin dein Ohrwurm!!'. At one point his girlfriend kicks him out, but the earworm says, 'Who cares? You still have me!' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qhgWvYvTcU

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    I'd never be a
    Heliothis zea.
    One spray, and see ya!
    The corn earworm is dead.

    Unfortunately, it's usually called Helicoverpa zea now, which doesn't fit the tune as well.

    In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter gives the cure for hiccups as "Run around the house three times without thinking of the word `wolf'." I wonder whether he got it from Pynchon and whether there's room for a zoological taxonomy of things you're challenged to not think about.

  13. JS said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    The translation "polar bear" for a Russian or French source is unnecessarily scientific in the context of the anecdotes.

    I'm not sure I agree, but the question certainly goes to the heart of what translation is all about.

    To be Mohist about it, perhaps the answer depends on whether or not a white bear is a bear.

  14. Rubrick said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

    As a result of climate change, of course, many people are now taking a concerned interest in White Bear Inventory Management.

  15. Jonathan said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    Amusing that just two nights ago the Atlanta Braves honored a rookie player with his own night, using the nickname bestowed on him in the Venezuelan winter league: El Oso Blanco.

  16. AntC said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

    Thank you Mark, great post.
    @Eric P. I always have a tune running through my head, …
    Yes, and it is normal. So do I, currently snatches of The Rite of Spring performed live Saturday night (the eve of Spring).
    I suppose whether your current earworm needs "driving out" is related to how banal it is, and how embarrasing it would be to admit that you listen to such stuff. [The Zits that Mark shows is one of a series on the theme.]

  17. Ken Brown said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    I just want to say that that passage from Tristram Shandy is one of the most wonderful pieces of writing about the English language and mind and narrative that I have ever read.

    And how would the bear behave? :-)

    Also my earworm today, and for at least the last ten days, has been "Lemady/Arise and pick a posy" from the Albion band's soundtrack to "Lark Rise to Candleford". It could be a lot worse!

  18. Faldone said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

    My wife and I have used the Quia Fecit Mihi Magna bass aria from the J. S. Bach Magnificat in d as our earworm antidote. Works every time. For a period I had a piece from a more modern work that acted as a vaccination against earworms, but it stopped working after some time and I don't remember what it was any more.

  19. John Lawler said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    As usual, Mark Twain's footprints stretch ahead on this beach.

    Conductor, when you receive a fare,
    Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
    A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
    A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
    A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
    Punch in the presence of the passenjare!


    Punch, brothers! punch with care!
    Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

    [(myl) And Dan Lufkin's footsteps are there as well, in this very comments thread. Also, there's a bluegrass band that took the name "Punch Brothers" from this story]

  20. maidhc said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

    A story about an ear-worm (not called that) taking over the world: Fritz Leiber's "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee", published in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1958.

  21. marie-lucie said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    white or polar

    I wonder if the "white bear" in question is, rather than an actual polar bear, a mythical or fairy tale creature, like the white hind, the white raven, the merle blanc 'white blackbird', the loup blanc 'white wolf', and other such imaginable but non-existing animals mentioned in fairy tales or other old mythical contexts. There are many legends such as 'how Raven turned black', perhaps originally inspired by the fact that some animals turn white in winter (eg the weasel/ermine), which could be interpreted as 'white animals turn dark in the summer' (and some of then have never returned to the original white). In the Russian case, the European brown bear was a familiar animal both in reality and in popular culture, but not the polar bear. So a child familiar with the bear (at least from stories and pictures if not also 'teddy bears') as a brown animal, is asked (not) to imagine a white one.

  22. Gene Callahan said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

    "Now I wonder: Did Tolstoy get his "(don't) think of a white bear" meme from Dostoyevsky?"

    Must everyone use the stupid "meme" meme just because it is trendy?

    What in the world would be wrong with "idea" here?

    [(myl) I used "meme" because it means "a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another", rather than "idea", which the same dictionary glosses as "Something, such as a thought or conception, that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity". And I wanted to focus on the repeated transmission, a motivation that should have been obvious to you.

    Would it have been ungrammatical or incoherent to use "idea" instead? Of course not. Does using "meme" add something to the meaning? Yes, of course it does.

    Your question is an odd one. For example, why did you use "trendy" rather than "fashionable", although "fashionable" is roughly twice as frequent? I presume it's because "trendy" has a strong negative connotation, and you wanted to add that nasty edge to your comment.

    That choice is your right as a writer — but why would you want to deprive others of the same freedom?

    If you have a problem with the concept "meme", you should explain yourself. If you believe that "meme" is just a "trendy" way to say "idea", you're simply mistaken. If you understand that "meme" means something different from "idea", but its use still annoys you, you should get over it, or at least keep it to yourself — we all have these little crotchets and irks, but they're among our less attractive features.]

  23. Ted McClure said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

    Back to other "don't think of a …" creatures, lawyers say "don't think of a blue horse" meaning that once you sneak something naughty out in front of the jury, even if the judge directs the jury to disregard it, it remains in their minds. I use a blue Navajo horse as my own logo (I'm a recovering attorney).

  24. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 2:31 am

    Eric P Smith: "I always have a tune running through my head, awake or dreaming."


    AntC: "Yes, and it is normal. So do I…"

    I'm very interested to learn of this, because I also always have an earworm but had never known this to be true of anyone else. My impression has always been that most people talk of earworms as unusual afflictions and not constant companions.

    Also, I'm struck by how that quoted paper looks at earworms being intrusive and unwanted thoughts and how this relates to schizotypal personality disorder. I mostly don't find earworms intrusive at all, it's just part of the background of my internal experience.

    In fact, I've always had a kind of intuition about this that does relate to schizophrenia, similar to hearing voices and the like in various noises: it seems like this is a dangerous path to go down, that there'd be a vicious cycle involved. My sense is that were I to begin worrying about and being anxious of my earworms, that this would reinforce itself into something deeply unpleasant and obsessive.

    And speaking of obsessive behaviors, I've always assumed that my constant earworm was a manifestation of what I've believed to be a mild tendency toward OCD in my personality.

    Anyway, I'm curious about your (Eric and AntC) experiences with earworms. My own is that I tend to have the same earworm for several days; though a week or so is not uncommon and I have experienced having the same one for a couple of months or so on a few occasions. Generally, the earworm is a short musical phrase that, if I focus on it specifically, will extend to more of the song.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    I was first exposed to the text of the "punch in the presence of the passenjare" jingle as a boy via the Homer Price story that the wikipedia article Dan Lufkin linked to (primarily about the earlier story by Twain) also mentioned. Of course, it's peculiar (and maybe not all that effective?) to read a story about earworms w/o knowing the tune that is supposedly getting stuck in people's heads. Does the literature document case studies of people having lyrics-only earworms without any corresponding music?

  26. AntC said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

    @Keith M: Language Log as therapy.
    I can't better @Eric P's description.
    I'm a musician. I don't feel that music running in my head is any sort of affliction. If it's a banal tune, I can easily enough summon up a replacement: good hard Bach fugue, or a long Mahler or Sibelius passage, or some angular Thelonius.
    It is occasionally annoying when I'm trying to listen to some (external) music, and it triggers another inside. But no worse than Oscar Peterson playing 'one melody inside the tune of another', or when B-A-C-H appears inside Die Kunst der Fuge.

  27. Jane Eyre said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

    When I was a child, my father used to tell me a story about a man who, while traveling, met a magical personage; this magical personage promised him that he would receive a great treasure — but only if he could complete his journey home without thinking of a white bear. (You can imagine how that worked out.)

    Although I've forgotten many (perhaps even most) of the story's details, it always seemed like a folktale to me. My family ancestry is Norwegian, which makes a northern origin likely, and it would not be surprising if the Scandinavian and Russian peoples shared many such folktales, which might also explain the allusions in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And I've always thought (perhaps wishfully) that Wegner and Zanakos must have known a version of the tale and alluded to it in naming the WBSI.

    [(myl) According to Wegner's own testimony, he got the white bear idea from an article in Playboy magazine. And either the article or his first memory of it got the Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky stories mixed up.]

  28. Eric P Smith said,

    September 4, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    @Keith M Ellis: So that makes three of us!

    It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that our experience of always having an earworm is associated with schizotypal personality and/or OCD. Some years ago I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and I have moderate, subclinical, OCD tendencies.

    Last year I took part in the Goldsmiths College Earworm Project, which meant keeping an earworm diary for 7 days. In the 7 days I identified 45 distinct earworms and 11 repeats. Keith, in view of your stated interest, I will e-mail you a copy of the diary.

  29. Anna Tchetchetkine said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 2:27 am

    @Eric P Smith, AntC, Keith M.:

    One more here for your persistent-earworm club!


    I'm struck by how that quoted paper looks at earworms being intrusive and unwanted thoughts and how this relates to schizotypal personality disorder. I mostly don't find earworms intrusive at all, it's just part of the background of my internal experience.

    Out of curiosity, are you a musician?

    I ask because, for me, earworms stopped being an unbearable affliction and morphed into a normal backdrop for life when I started singing in a choir in seventh grade. (I'd played piano before, but I guess that was insufficient.) Suddenly I would have songs stuck in my head all the goddamn time; for a couple months, it was just constantly terrible, and then I got used to it. Now I just go about my life with my brain working through some Bach.

    (What was a bit frustrating was that during all my years of choral singing, all my earworms in October were Christmas songs, since that's when we would start rehearsing them. My friends thought it very strange when I'd bust out "Jingle Bell Rock" around Halloween.)

    As for schizotypy/OCD/etc., I don't have OCD as far as I know, but I certainly do get "stuck" on a particular thought often (and get distracted from whatever I'm trying to think about), so I suppose the earworms could be part of that.

    Anyway, it's very amusing to see that so many psychologists have apparently been motivated to study earworms!

  30. Nanti earworms | Greater Blogazonia said,

    September 6, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    […] was briefly excited by the title of a recent Language Log post, Earworms and White Bears, thinking it might have something to say about, well, worms that people put in their ears. However, […]

  31. nbm said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 5:26 am

    A variation on the white bear that must not be thought of: my father would speak of the tale of the flying carpet that only flew if you didn't think about an elephant. I have never tried to find out if there were such a story in circulation; has anyone else heard it?

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    "Out of curiosity, are you a musician?"

    As a matter of fact, I am. Hmm, that's interesting.

  33. David said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

    All I want to know is, what would the fox say about all this?


  34. Tim Williams said,

    May 17, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    As one of the authors of the paper quoted at the start of this blogentry, I am flattered that it raised such interest. I am particularly interested in the comments which suggest that there might be two phenomena here: 1. the short part piece of music that repeats in one's head and 2. the continuous music that several of your correspondents describe (Keith M Ellis, Eric P Smith and AntC. This is something my daughter described to me and has been corroborated by a number of personal experiences. I would like to ask you some questions about this continuous music experience in the interests of trying to distinguish it from earworms. If you would be prepared to answer some questions from me, please email me at timothy.williams@reading.ac.uk.

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