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

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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.

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