What I Don’t Know About Earworms and Subliminal Influence

If you don’t think you can be influenced by things in your environment you don’t pay attention to, let me ask you: have you ever had an earworm — a song stuck replaying in your mind? Sure you have. And have you wondered why that song? Have you ever had one that wouldn’t stop repeating that you don’t even like?

I found myself the victim of that this morning. Caught myself mentally humming a song I hear overhead at work, one I don’t like at all. I’m not even sure what the song is or who performs it. All I know about it is it’s outside my taste range. Bad enough I have to hear it at the workplace; why in the world is my own brain torturing me with the melody today?

Even though I didn’t think the mystery song had made an impression on me, and even though I very much don’t want it to stay with me, evidently I’ve heard it enough that it did.

So what other background noise are we absorbing throughout each day that can sneak up on us later?

Evaluating conversations and input when we’re actively listening takes effort and skill. What about when we aren’t so aware of what we’re hearing?

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Psychologists have been aware of subliminal effects on behavior since the 19th century. There is a wealth of proof that incidental exposure to images, phrases, and sounds have an influence on mood, thinking, and our actions. Concerned? Don’t get too worried yet.

As in most things, awareness is your greatest asset. The more aware you are of your surroundings, the greater you ability to react in a positive, healthy manner. And even though we’re ironically addressing stuff that’s by nature difficult to be aware of, knowing there’s the possibility of picking up signals you might not want in your psyche gives you great advantages. You can be prepared.

There are (at least) two things that should encourage you:

First, although some unrecognized messages can find their way to you, nothing has greater control on you than YOU and your mental strength. As in other aspects of dealing with life, you choose how you behave, react, and perform. Outside stimuli shouldn’t be ignored, but your attitude toward them is your own to develop.

Second, with the knowledge that subtle triggers can affect you, you can arrange for positive subconscious cues to help you remain strong, healthy, and happy. Put the psychology to work for yourself. Reinforce good thoughts, beneficial emotions, inspiring ideas, happy memories, and encouraging targets that motivate the best in you.

For example, where I work I have to use several passwords to access systems and applications numerous times each day. While adhering to good security practices, I make make my passwords some sort of positive message to myself — variations on “PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) all day,” for instance. So every time I nearly mindlessly type in the password, I get a tiny reminder to keep the chin up. Believe it or not, even doing it as long as I have, the little phrases hidden in my passcodes still often spur a good pause and smile. And the smile itself serves as a reinforcement to happiness.

Other folks have recommended setting reminders on your phone or other device to alert you periodically. Set messages to yourself like “you’re awesome” or “remember to be grateful” that you’ll see a few times a day. If you can’t count on anyone else, you can at least be your own cheerful coach.

Obviously, the more you can structure your environment to prevent unpleasant signals and exude beneficial ones, the better. When in situations where that’s limited or not possible, there are still steps you can take to prime your subconscious the way you want.

Remember, you may not always have control of your environment, but you do always have control of yourself.

Two more suggestions:

1. Watch and carefully choose your own language. Keep it positive. Not only will that broadcast good vibes for other people in your area, but it effects you as well. The concentration and attention to selecting verbiage increases your awareness of all the communication occurring at the time, not just what you’re saying. Also, your voice is the one you hear loudest, and if you speak consciously, you effectively “hear” the words twice — once as you prepare to say them and then again as their spoken out loud.

2. Allow yourself moments of reflection throughout the day. Doesn’t have to be full out meditation, although that’s certainly optimal. A simple few seconds to objectively recognize where you are and what you’re doing is all it takes. Awareness is an asset, remember? Take a pause, ask yourself whether your behavior has been what you want it to be? Are you being true to your best self?

You might realize in these moments how things or people you’ve come in contact with during the day have influenced you. Might give you cause to be grateful, which is great! Might reveal an opportunity to correct the path on which your day has turned. That’s also great. And you might find that nothing has interfered with you achieving all the things you want. In that case the self check-in gives you a great opportunity to high-five yourself!

Lastly, remember there are lots of good messages we pick up without realizing it, too. Don’t shut yourself off from all outside stimuli. Be open to new messages. You never know where your next favorite song will come from.

 

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