A new programme of research at the University of Sheffield represents a genuine cross-disciplinary collaboration between Science (Dr Lisa-Marie Emerson: Psychology) and Arts and Humanities (Dr Victoria Williamson: Music).

The focus of the newly awarded grant is the thoughts that we sometimes struggle to control. Up to 40% of our daily thoughts are not under direct volitional control. The study of such involuntary cognitions poses significant challenges: they are internal, can be disturbing and altered by monitoring.

However, rewards come with improved understanding of involuntary cognition, since related disorders such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are associated with personal, social and economic harm.

The new grant takes a novel approach by combining research on two different forms of involuntary cognition to advance our understanding of the phenomena. New studies will determine whether experiences of largely innocuous involuntary musical imagery (earworms) are associated with patterns of more distressing obsessive intrusive thoughts.

Dr Victoria Williamson (Music) is a leading expert in the earworm phenomenon. Earworms are snippets of music that intrude into the mind unbidden and on repeat. Over two thirds of earworms are rated as neutral or pleasant. Obsessive Intrusive Thoughts (an area of expertise for Dr Lisa-Marie Emerson: Psychology) are also experienced by the majority of individuals, but can cause great distress and contribute to OCD.

The next step for research is to better understand common ground between involuntary cognition types by comparing earworms and Obsessive Intrusive Thoughts. The hope is that earworms might function as a low distress indicator of a person’s likelihood to report distressing Obsessive Intrusive Thoughts, and as such the project will offer a unique new method for studying potential vulnerability to OCD or similar conditions.