Pharrell Williams may give the brain a cheap thrill. But for proper cerebral excitement, you’re still better off with Shakespeare

‘Happy’ lights up no part of my brain whatsoeverthe streets


Just back from a few days’ holiday in the sun, the intended calming effects of which were vitiated more than a little a) by the fact of there being more sun back home and b) by the hotel’s piping music in all its public places – niggling tunes that snagged the ear and sank the heart. Imagine “The Girl from Ipanema” synthesised through the nostrils of a depressed camel from 8am until midnight and you have still not approached the torment of it. One particular melancholy repetition of sounds – I suspect Bedouin in origin, for no other reason than that it suggested long uneventful nights in the desert and the disappointments of another insufficiently spiced tagine – entered my brain on the first morning of my stay and remains with me a week later. The word for a tune that lodges in this way is an earworm, said to be borrowed from the German Ohrwurm, but it could just as easily be a corruption of earthworm, for that is exactly how it feels – as though an earthworm has invaded your head and is slowly and with a circular motion burrowing through your occipital lobes looking for whatever it is that earthworms eat, all the while humming to itself.

“It is quite a common thing,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in a story called ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, “to be annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera.” And that was long before we possessed the technology to disseminate that annoyance simultaneously to millions. It surprises me, I have to say, that we expend so much energy fulminating against surveillance, convinced that governments employ phalanxes of spies (all as airless as Edward Snowden) to catch us doing what we have already posted videos of ourselves doing on Facebook, yet tolerate almost without demur the far less justified (and far more mentally damaging) intrusiveness of music – not just the fact of it wherever we set foot, but the assumption of it as something we cannot live without.

The phenomenon of the earworm is the subject of scholarly investigation at Goldsmiths, University of London, but don’t get your hopes up. Far from proving scientifically what common observation teaches, that the earworm is ruinous to our mental health, and recommending that its means of transmission should therefore be proscribed or at least made subject to periodic moratoria – even one month of silence in every three would help – the team at Goldsmiths is uncritical, and might even be said to be upbeat, about its effects. Writing about it in The Sunday Times recently, Lauren Stewart, reader in psychology, said of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” – a bit of earwormery that appears to have been composed with the express intention of being such – that “it lights up all the areas that matter in the brain”.

It is not for a layman to disagree with a psychologist about which areas in the brain matter, but my brain is my brain and I can say on its behalf that “Happy” lights up no part of it whatsoever. What, not even when Pharrell Williams gets the world dancing in the streets, spinning on its heels and singing “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”? No, reader, not even then.

Leaving my own brain out of it, I am not sure I am convinced by Lauren Stewart’s argument on behalf of anyone else’s. “The repetition inherent to music like this is enjoyable,” she says, which to my mind immediately raises some of the questions she should be answering about the nature of enjoyment – “because listening to music causes us to unconsciously make predictions about how a melody will continue. When these predictions are confirmed, the result is a cerebral high that can be as potent as any expected reward.”

If a cerebral high is what you get when you guess correctly where a tune of unsurpassable banality is going next, you might wonder what you have to do to get a cerebral low. But if that’s how brains work – getting excited because the next popcorn tastes the same as the last – then that’s how brains works, in us as in a hamster, but is it not a wonder, in that case, that we have ever been able to compose or listen to a melody that is not a masterwork of predictability?

I wrote with enthusiasm in this column, years ago, about the work being done at Liverpool University by Professor Philip Davis on the demands which reading Shakespeare makes on our brains. Shakespeare is good for the brain because of the strenuous exercise to which reading him subjects it. The more syntactically baffling a Shakespearean line, the more parenthetically distracting his thought, the more grammatically violent his expression, the more work the brain has to do to understand. Wonderful indeed, as registered by the electroencephalogram to which it is wired, are the brain’s acts of cognitive athleticism, its leaps and urgent modulations, as it strives to keep up with what’s challenging it. No easily attained “high” here at having the predictable confirmed. What excites the brain in these experiments is precisely what it can’t predict. So if we are to talk of parts of the brain “mattering”, surely the parts that Shakespeare reaches matter more.

Fair’s fair – Lauren Stewart is addressing an earworm, not Cymbeline. And it’s not her job to moralise about brains being lit up by drivel. But there are times when even the brain needs ticking off for being easily satisfied. The question of the earworm’s function is one she knows she cannot dodge. One theory she is testing is whether it acts as a “kind of sonic screensaver for the mind”, triggering “vigilance as to our environment”. An entirely unscientific, but better, explanation is that earworms warn us of the perils of listening to Pharrell Williams, of our slavish cerebral willingness to lapse into mental nothingness, of the necessity to free ourselves from the terrible, often cynical, tyranny of the tune.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: a duchess by any other name is just wrong

Guy Keleny
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor