Saturday, September 12, 2009 By: Suzanne

Short Stories: Brainworms

Short Story Saturdays


I took so long getting this posted today because I 1) have a migraine that's going to kill me and 2) wanted to give you a little more than just more Oliver Sacks. First I'll start with the Sacks because it's actually interesting

This comes from Chapter 5 of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes. Maybe I should explain what Sacks means about Brainworms before I lose everyone! Here's the sentence that explains it best:

Many people are set off by the theme of music of a film or television show or an advertisement. This is not coincidental, for such music is designed, in the terms of the music industry, to "hook" the listener, to be "catchy" or "sticky," to bore its way, like an earwig, into the ear or mind; hence the term "earworms" - though one might be inclined to call them "brianworms" instead.

This one was fun to read because who hasn't had this happen? We have all at one point be driven insane by some snippet of music stuck in our heads, whether we even liked the song or not. But I'll bet you've never had it happen for 43 years straight and felt locked inside yourself by it. This is what happened to one of Sacks Parkinson's patients described in his more well known book Awakenings. He says, "seven pairs of notes (the fourteen notes of Povero Rigoletto)...would repeat themselves irresistibly in her mind. She also spoke of these forming "a musical quadrangle" who four sides she would have to perambulate, mentally, endlessly. This might go on for hours on end, and did so at intervals throughout the entire 43 years of her illness, prior to being "awakened" by L-dopa."

Sacks talks of some ways people have found for getting rid of this problem, such as singing the song to it's actual conclusion (which I've heard of but never seems to work for me, I just get another part of the same song stuck in my head) or singing another song purposefully (of course then THIS may become stuck too!).

He gives an interesting theory, which I'll leave you to ponder, of the possible evolutionary reason for this phenomenon.

It may be that brainworms, even if maladaptive in our own music-saturated culture, stem from an adaptation that was crucial in earlier hunter-gatherer days: replaying the sounds of animals moving or other significant sounds again and again, until their recognition was assured.


The next short story is a real short story. I'll leave Sacks where he belongs for now, in my head! hahaha. It comes from Orson Scott Card's Keeper of Dreams, which I bought a year ago at his book signing. Yes, it's signed! It says, "To Tonya, A fellow dreamer," probably a common statement but one I enjoyed nonetheless. This story The Elephants of Poznan.

It is set in the future, as most of his books and stories are. It is in Poland after a devastating plague has not only killed most of the human population but also left them sterile. I'll start with the opening paragraph because I think it conveys so much:

In the heart of old Poznan, the capital of Great Poland since ancient times, there is a public square called Rynek Glowny. The houses around it aren't as lovely as those of Krakow, but they have been charming painted and there is a faded graciousness that wins the heart. The plaza came through World War II more or less intact, but the Communist governement apparently could not bear the thought of so much wasted space. What use did it have? Public squares were for public demonstrations, and once the Communists had seized control on behalf of the people, people, public demonstrations would never be needed again. So out in the middle of the square they built a squat, ugly building in a brutally modern style. It sucked the life out of the place. You had to stand with your back to it in order to truly enjoy the square.

Now I'm not sure if he is exaggerating or if the pictures I found simply didn't show the building he's talking about, but I thought it was beautiful!
This is an interesting story. After the plague, the elephants come to Poznan. The have journeyed from Africa and everyone is a little confused as to what they are doing here. Shortly afterward, a family comes to Poznan. The mother, father, and daughter came through the plague together, though they lost their two sons. Miraculously, the daughter is fully healthy and the parents believe she may be able to conceive. Since she is the only hope of the human race to survive, she agrees to an experiment of sleeping with one man every three months (in order to know which man is fertile). The narrator of the story turns out to be that man. Shortly after his son is born, he begins focusing on the elephants and why they seem to be watching the people, almost as if they are conducting an experiment...

I would love to tell the whole story but it would be the same! Please read this wonderful story!

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