Linkage 12/11: Google Webs and Earworms

earwormA Familiar Idea of the Year

One of my favorite year-end wrap-ups is the New York Times Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue, a far-flung digest of creative innovations across multiple fields. This year’s issue comes out on Sunday, but is already viewable online, and a sneak-peek led me to a familiar idea – Stefano Allesina’s model of ecological food webs based on Google’s search engine algorithm. We wrote about Allesina, an assistant professor of evolution and ecology, and his research back in September, as did a lot of media outlets who couldn’t resist the Google angle, but it’s great to see his work receiving even more prominent attention. Excitingly, the blurb talks about how some researchers are looking to apply Allesina’s Page Rank-based model to other topics, such as financial markets and cell signaling. And there’s a really snazzy graphic too!

There’s other great science stuff in the Ideas issue, such as how named cows produce more milk, a glow-in-the-dark dog, and how to write music for animals (and why tamarin monkeys prefer Tool and Metallica)

A Plague of Earworms

Speaking of music science (my favorite topic of all), there has been a flood of interesting articles on the science of music lately, including an entire issue of the journal The Psychologist devoted to the topic. From that issue, I learned that:

  • “fans of rock and rap were more likely than others to consider suicide and to self-harm,” but “thoughts of suicide and self-harm precede an interest in rock.”
  • Various studies have found an effect of music upon variables such as foot pain, pulse, blood pressure, chronic pain, stress hormones and even allergic responses
  • Dogs like Beethoven more than Black Sabbath: “The classical music was arguably the most soothing, and it is interesting that it led to the dogs spending more time resting, more time quiet, and less time standing. In contrast, arguably the least soothing music, heavy metal, led to more time barking.”

Another fascinating scientific study of music has to do with a phenomenon common to most people: earworms, otherwise known as having a song stuck in your head. These crafty creatures, also known variably as stuck song syndrome, brainworms, or involuntary musical imagery, have been featured in popular books on the brain and music such as Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, but have been reported as far back as Mark Twain in an 1876 Atlantic Monthly article. However, despite all this attention, there is very little scientific data about earworms, other than some vague notions that they may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, may be more common in musicians than non-musicians, and may be more commonly associate with jingles and TV show themes than other types of music.

C. Philip Beaman and Tim I. Williams of the University of Reading in England decided to do the dirty work of, you know, actually proving these claims by surveying people at the Reading train station and asking University students to keep a diary of their earworm experiences. They found little to no support for many of the above statements, but did find that “those who considered music to be important were more likely to report tunes lasting longer, and to report experiencing them as more troubling.” So if you listen to a lot of music, chances are you get songs more deeply stuck in your head, and that can be really annoying – especially when it’s, as my friend reported yesterday, the WKRP theme song.

While annoying, TV theme songs and other jingles don’t have the earworm advantage, the study found. That crown instead goes to “predominantly recent” pop music, the authors said, though the most frequent artists named in their survey (conducted in August 2006) were hardly cutting edge – Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses and, OK, Justin Timberlake. Most interesting to me (though it may have to do with the relatively small size of the study) is that there was very little in common between people’s earworms – the researchers reported very little overlap of earworm song choice between participants. Maybe that means our internal jukebox (or internal iTunes, to be more current) is as unique to each one of us as our fingerprint.

(hat tip to the great blog Mind Hacks for both of these links)

Perhaps He’ll Name it Hackashaq

Last week I mentioned a newly-discovered shrimp species that had its naming rights posted as an charity auction on eBay. This week, the winner of the auction was announced: former Bulls journeyman center Luc Longley. Science meets the Hack-a-Shaq Defense.

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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