Have you ever had a song go round and round in your head for longer than you’d like? I certainly have. It’s a common enough experience for which in recent years the term ‘earworm’ has been coined. More academically, it’s known through American Psychological Association research as Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), defined as ‘the spontaneous recall and repeating of a tune in one’s mind’.
A persistent earworm of mine belongs to a radio staple of my youth: the Scottish funk group Average White Band’s disco hit, ‘Let’s Go Round Again’.
If you’re unfamiliar with it I hesitate to recommend you listen, lest I pass its catchy stickiness to you. But in the song the singer returns from unspecified travels to entreat a former lover to reconnect with him in the way they were and so ‘turn back the hands of time’. Mining a commonly held nostalgia for revisiting the passionate phases of former loves, I think the song’s sentiment succeeds most through its appeal to the very human need for repetition in relationship.
Just over 100 years ago in Freud’s essay, Beyond The Pleasure Principle , he outlined long observed patterns of behaviour in his many patients as manifestations of a ‘compulsion to repeat’. He cites a case study of a little boy who created a game of regularly throwing and retrieving from his cot a favoured reel on a piece of string. He would throw it out to a word meaning ‘gone’, then retrieve it with a joyful sound meaning ‘there’. Within the context of the family, Freud offers the interpretation that the child’s invented game of disappearance and return was a way ‘to revenge himself on his mother for going away from him’.
He goes on to speculate that children repeat unpleasant experiences in order to gain some kind of mastery over them and then observes that many of his adult patients show behavioural repetitions resulting in misfortunes ‘for the most part arranged by themselves and determined by early infantile influences’.
Later in the 1960s an analysand of one of Freud’s followers developed this notion of repetition in human behaviour, identifying common relationship patterns in those reported by his own patients. He named these patterns psychological ‘games’: repeated transactions played out of conscious awareness by both parties in a relationship. Eric Berne’s ‘Games People Play’ (1964) became a 60s best seller and is a founding text in the development of the modality of Transactional Analysis.
In essence, Berne extended Freud’s earlier insights to suggest that each of us in infancy develops a repertoire of repetitive behaviours that we use to protect ourselves. The proposal is that at a deeply unconscious level we seek relationships with others who will allow us to repeat roles and situations that for us confirm fundamental beliefs about ourselves and other people, in order to keep ourselves safe.
Whenever we encounter relationship issues in our lives, it can often seem as though our difficulties take the form of repeated patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. The process of psychotherapy can support us with self inquiry into the types of repeated behaviours we favoured when small, with a view to us breaking our adult patterns. It can help us pose the interlinked questions, ‘How might I be different with myself, so I might be different with others?’
In the penultimate verse of Let’s Go Round Again, the lover sings, ‘Baby, I know that you think I will be different now. Inside of me nothing has changed. So, I’m asking you again, please.’ And of course, the prerequisite for repetition is for nothing to change inside.
I like to think the old lover he is addressing greets the singer warmly but invites him this time into a different kind of relationship, where they can both explore new ways of being together that don’t leave them going round and round.
Chris Horton is a registered member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and a psychotherapeutic counsellor with experience in a diverse range of occupational settings. He works with individuals (young people/adults) in private practice. He is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practice.
Further reading by Chris Horton
1 Jakubowski, Kelly; Finkel, Sebastian; Stewart, Lauren; Müllensiefen, Daniel (2017) Dissecting an Earworm:
2 Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery,
3 Freud, S (2015) Beyond the Pleasure Principal, Dover Thrift Editions
4 Berne, E. (1964) Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Ballantine.