In The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, which was published over the course of 1952–1953, the existence of a professional caste of psychics is central to the plot. Much of what happens in the novel is about the steps that one of the protagonists, Ben Reich, takes to conceal the crime he plans and commits from the "peepers" who can read his mind, while time Lincoln Powell, a peeper police detective, is trying to solve the case and get enough evidence to have Reich prosecuted.

Reich uses a bunch of clever strategies to avoid getting peeped too closely. Perhaps most notably, he gets a Broadway showtune composer to play him the catchiest song she has ever written—and he spends the following hours with "'Tenser,' Said the Tensor," playing in his head. Since 1953, a number of other science fiction have (and maybe fantasy as well) works have used similar mechanisms for how to prevent characters from having their minds read: have a bouncy earworm—a very superficial sequence of words (or maybe other sounds; or even images, maybe?) preventing a psychic from seeing too deeply into someone's mind. Usually, this done defensively, to protect someone's mind from intrusion, but it could also go the other direction; a character might want to have a peeper retrieve something from their subconscious memories, but it's impossible to get past the ditty that's constantly repeating in their surface thoughts.

Does this idea go back originally to The Demolished Man, or is it older than that? What was the first work to describe an earworm (broadly construed) as interference against psychic probing or attack?

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    I don't know the answer to your question, but you taught me a new word today. Thanks! (earworm)
    – Basya
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 14:16
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    The Demolished Man is such an excellent work!
    – davidbak
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 18:40
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    Depends on your definition of psychic attack, if the sirens' enchanting song counts then Argonautica from 3rd century BC. Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 13:48
  • Relatedly, in Philip K Dick's Game-players of Titan, the protagonist and five other characters suddenly find out that their memories of a whole day have been erased, and a seventh person has been killed during that day. Not only are the psychic police detectives not able to tell who's guilty... The six suspects all have a motive and they themselves don't know whether they're innocent.
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 9:05

2 Answers 2


An earlier possibility than The Demolished Man that uses a recited passage to block another mind's attempt to mentally control the target shows up in Donovan's Brain (1942). The protagonist, Dr. Cory, uses this technique to try to block the titular disembodied brain:

To protect myself from giving away my intention to the brain, I use a very simple trick. I remember a silly tongue-twister I learned as a child. My mother practiced it with me to cure me of a lisp. Now I repeat the lines incessantly whenever the lamp is burning and the brain awake. "Amidst the mists and coldest frosts he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts!"

Note that I am discounting the Kipling answer because I don't believe that hypnotism counts as a "mental attack."

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    So that's where the quote from It comes from...
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 16:47
  • And from there to the Beastie Boys' "B-Boy Bouillabaisse". Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 5:36

There's a passage in Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1900: Gutenberg) where the main character (Kim) recites the multiplication table to himself to prevent himself from being hypnotized. I guess it depends on how broadly you construe "an earworm (broadly construed) as interference against psychic probing or attack?"

To save his life, Kim could not have turned his head. The light touch held him as in a vice, and his blood tingled pleasantly through him. There was one large piece of the jar where there had been three, and above them the shadowy outline of the entire vessel. He could see the veranda through it, but it was thickening and darkening with each beat of his pulse. Yet the jar—how slowly the thoughts came!—the jar had been smashed before his eyes. Another wave of prickling fire raced down his neck, as Lurgan Sahib moved his hand.

“Look! It is coming into shape,” said Lurgan Sahib.

So far Kim had been thinking in Hindi, but a tremor came on him, and with an effort like that of a swimmer before sharks, who hurls himself half out of the water, his mind leaped up from a darkness that was swallowing it and took refuge in—the multiplication-table in English!

“Look! It is coming into shape,” whispered Lurgan Sahib.

The jar had been smashed—yess, smashed—not the native word, he would not think of that—but smashed—into fifty pieces, and twice three was six, and thrice three was nine, and four times three was twelve. He clung desperately to the repetition. The shadow-outline of the jar cleared like a mist after rubbing eyes. There were the broken shards; there was the spilt water drying in the sun, and through the cracks of the veranda showed, all ribbed, the white house-wall below—and thrice twelve was thirty-six!

“Look! Is it coming into shape?” asked Lurgan Sahib.

“But it is smashed—smashed,” he gasped—Lurgan Sahib had been muttering softly for the last half-minute. Kim wrenched his head aside. “Look! Dekho! It is there as it was there.”

“It is there as it was there,” said Lurgan, watching Kim closely while the boy rubbed his neck. “But you are the first of many who has ever seen it so.” He wiped his broad forehead.

This passage is referenced in de Camp and Pratt's fantasy novel Castle of Iron (1962: Google books), where the protagonist is trying to resist a sleeping spell:

There was a story where you mustn't sleep. King of the Golden River? No ... Kim — and the boy there had used the multiplication table. The memory jerked him to effort. Three times three is nine ... if he could only keep on ... this part was too easy ... six times seven is forty-two ...

In A Wrinkle in Time (L'Engle, also from 1962), mind-control is attempted on the protagonists twice, once by the would-be controllers reciting the multiplication table, with the protagonists resisting by reciting nursery rhymes ...

And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don't you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Let me show you. Let us say the multiplication table together.'

'No,' Charles Wallace said.

'Once one is one. Once two is two. Once three is three.'

'Mary had a little lamb!' Charles Wallace shouted. 'Its fleece was white as snow!'

'Once four is four. Once five is five. Once six is six.' 'And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.'

... and the Gettysburg address. Later, the US Declaration of Independence and the periodic table of elements are used similarly.

As this blog post points out, this episode is referenced in a Babylon 5 episode, A Race Through Dark Places (1995).

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    I hadn't thought of Kim, because it's not really a science fiction example, but it probably was an important influence on later uses in SF.
    – Buzz
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 15:53
  • I haven't read it, but the description of the hypnosis seems science-fictional (like modern writers who use quantum computing, it's new and they don't really understand it). Most people now have some understanding of the techniques and limits of hypnosis, but in 1900 it probably seemed science-fictiony. Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 21:01
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    I think it probably has more to do with the fact that from the protagonist's point of view it seems like magic (the protagonist is an Anglo-Indian boy who has spent his life in native culture); Kipling expects that the reader will know it's hypnotism.
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 21:48
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    In A Wrinkle in Time, iirc, the multiplication table is used to facilitate hypnosis! Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 19:12
  • In fairness, I have it on reliable authority that "hypnosis" is too primitive a word, without the correct connotations, for what happens in A Wrinkle In Time. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 22:04

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