Big changes are afoot at my retirement center in the new year. My Zumba exercise class has been cancelled and though dancing is the least hateful way for me to exercise, I confess I’m happy about it. I loathed the music. What’s more, the tunes stayed with me days after the class only to be reinforced the following week. With no future classes on the calendar, I’m hoping my memory of the music will fade away.
Trouble is, there’s so little we know about the way our minds wrap themselves around sounds. Multiple studies since the 1920s have shown that regardless of the language spoken or cultural background, certain consonants are associated shapes. Kiki and takete, for example, are associated with spiky shapes and bouba and malumi are associated with round shapes. (“The Universal Meaning of Consonants,” by Amy Pycha, Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec 2015, pg. 8) We don’t know why this is true and the effect isn’t limited to consonants. A small sample of people matched d,n,sp,sh and zh with round shapes and f, v and z with spiky shapes. While I beg to differ on f, the conclusion drawn so far is, “we humans have fundamental reactions to certain sounds” independent of our language or background. (Ibid pg. 8).
A baby’s wail or a terrified scream occupies a space in our brain which demands we stop and listen. Unlike any other sounds, our brains are programmed to recognize decibels varying at short intervals, between 30 to 150 times normal, as a sign of fear. (“Why Screams Are So Startling,” by Bret Stetka, Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec 2015 pg. 9.) That’s why sirens and alarms are designed to “oscillate in loudness, copying this wide chaotic frequency.” (Ibid pg 9)
None of these studies explain why Zumba music recycles through my heard, however. I’m suffering from earworm, apparently. Not a real worm, but a “benign form of rumination.” (How Do You Solve a Problem Like an Earworm?” by Harriet Brown, Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec 2015 pg. 13.) The solution for getting rid of it is simple. Chew gum. Chewing engages the same part of the brain that houses musical memories and so serves as a distraction.
Unfortunately, for some musical obsessions, chewing gum won’t work. In that case, sit back and enjoy the concert.