It happens to everyone: You listen to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” one time, and suddenly it’s six hours later and you find that you’re humming it while washing dishes, or singing it full-out in the shower (guilty as charged). Anyone can get a song stuck in her head—the real question is how the heck do you get the song out once it’s there?
Well, a recently-published study by researchers at Western Washington University offers some helpful suggestions. The study, which delightfully refers to stuck-in-head-songs as “earworms,” says that as long as the mind is too idle, a tune that your brain finds catchy has plenty of room and space to, in layman’s musical terms, play on repeat. However, if your brain is occupied with something fairly challenging, there’s not a whole lot of free room left over for that earworm to dig deeper holes.
“The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge,” says Dr. Ira Hyman, a music psychologist who conducted the research. “If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head. Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resources, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing.”
The researchers looked at whether puzzles like Sudoku and verbal challenges like solving anagrams helped, and they found overwhelmingly evidence that they do—unless, of course, the puzzles are too hard, in which case the brain gets easily distracted by that catchy tune residing idly in the background. (Translation: our brains are lazy, y’all.)
Also intriguing: the songs found to be most catchy are some of the big hits by Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Rihanna. To be fair, this study concluded before Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” (and “Wrecking Ball,” for that matter) were big chart hits. Below, find some of the songs researchers deemed catchiest—if you dare tempt the earworms! (Here’s a daily anagram and Sudoku to bookmark to make sure they don’t get stuck in your head.)