Tag Archives: memory

Endemic! Week: Earworms

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.


Meth’s for amateurs. Heroin? Puh-leeze!

If you really want to influence people, look to Alka-Seltzer and Oscar Mayer.

Infectious. Addictive. They’ll be carriers before they realize. Their brains will form new neural pathways. Repetition will reinforce it. Unthinking, they’ll contaminate their friends. They’ll never be rid of it until the day they die.

They’ll all be mine, and by the time they realize what I’ve done, it’ll be too late.

All over the world, they’re putting in their earphones and cranking up the speakers on their computers and in their cars. Then the transmission begins:

“Jelly is a bouncy treat…”


Ah, earworms. What can we do about you? Like a vampire, we invite you in the first time, but once inside, you just. Won’t. Leave.

Photo of green gelatin
Jelly is a bouncy treat,
Never runny, always sweet,
Squishy underneath your feet,
Give us all some jelly!
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I composed today’s piece of microfiction after catching an earworm from Drabblecast Episode #43: Jelly Park. This infectious little jingle is an ode to tasty, tasty gelatin in all its shapes and forms. Now I like a nice bit of jello as much as the next kid, but I had this jingle in my head for weeks after listening to it. Weeks! Humming it in the morning while brushing my teeth. Humming it at night as I tried to fall asleep. Humming it later at night, when said earworm sent me back to my headphones for the only short-term cure I know: listening to it one more time.

If you think that’s bad, consider this: I once had Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” stuck in my head for over a month. Every time I got one part of the song out of my head, a new earworm from the same song would step up and take its place. (“Will you let me go?” “No, we will not let you go!”)

Earlier this week, it occurred to me that like Toxoplasma gondii and obesity, culture can be endemic too. Our music behaves much like an infectious endemic disease. A tune passes from person to person, spreading through localized populations, and settling in to stay. It won’t kill its host, but it’ll make you into another disease vector. Even the word “transmission” has a double meaning: it can refer to a music broadcast, or to infecting someone else with your disease.

And the most devious thing? Earworms really will be with you for life.

Earworms: they're coming for you.
Earworms: they’re coming for you. (Photo credit: Flats!)

Our brains create memories by building and reinforcing neural pathways called memory traces or engrams. Memorization teaches your brain a new route through the woods of thought. Each repetition digs the trail a little deeper. Do this often enough, and your brain will lay down pavement, set up road signs, turn that memory into a major highway through your cerebrum.

As we know, earworms just won’t quit playing in your head. And if you’re anything like me, you feel compelled to gorge yourself on the offending tune until it dies. The devious little earworm knows what it’s doing: it’s burrowing its way deep into your brain, reinforcing itself through repetition, so that on your deathbed, you’ll still be humming that dang tune about the jelly.

Some of the research on earworms suggests that musicians get them more often than the rest of us. I don’t know whether to pity them or to point a finger and laugh. After all, they’re the ones who write those catchy tunes to begin with. Musicians are basically Patient Zero. It seems only fair that their infections would be the most virulent.

So enjoy those earworms, musically inclined friends. You brought them on yourselves.

…Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to the jelly song again. Maybe this time I’ll get it out of my head.

What’re you currently listening to? Got an earworm? Share some of your favorite music with me in the comments below!