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Involuntary, spontaneous cognitions (thoughts that pop up out of nowhere) are common, everyday experiences that occur against a backdrop of deliberate goal-directed mental processes (Christoff, Ream & Gabrieli, 2004; Klinger & Cox, 1987). In fact, up to 40% of thoughts that occur in daily life can be unrelated to the task at hand (McVay et al. 2009). Such experiences are valuable hallmarks of our inner mental life but have been traditionally regarded as beyond the reach of scientific study. One type of spontaneous, involuntary cognition may, however, hold special promise for empirical investigation. Spontaneous musical imagery (SMI) (the ‘earworm phenomenon’) is vivid, can be described in detail (Brown, 2006), and affects 90% of the population at least once a week (Liikkanen, 2008). As part of a collaboration with the BBC, my research group has developed an online survey instrument ( and collected several thousand reports of SMI episodes. In the present talk I will outline findings from our research projects that address the following 3 questions: What are the musical features of an earworm? Who is more likely to get earworms? What triggers earworms in everyday life? The results from these studies move us closer to understanding the content and function of involuntary spontaneous cognitions.

For further information please contact:
Maria Flynn [email protected]