Does the sound of dinner guests slurping their soup make your blood boil and provoke an extreme sense of anger and discomfort for you? How about your co-worker clicking their pen repeatedly in a meeting? If either of these scenarios has you covering your ears in a desperate attempt to block out the noise, then you may be one of the many people who suffers from a genuine brain abnormality called misophonia.
Misophonia is an affective sound-processing disorder characterized by the experience of strong negative emotions (anger and anxiety) in response to everyday sounds such as those generated by other people eating, drinking, chewing and breathing. The disorder begins early in life, with the average onset being age 12, but can be as early as 5 years old.
The good news is that researchers out of the U.K. have discovered an answer for why these sounds produce an “excessive” emotional response in people. Sukhbinder Kumar and his team at Newcastle University scanned the brains of 20 volunteers with a severe form of misophonia, as well as 22 people who don’t have it.
The participants were played a range of noises while they were in the MRI machine, including neutral sounds such as rain, generally unpleasant sounds such as screaming and people’s trigger sounds.
Behavioral data showed that trigger sounds evoked misophonic distress in misophonic subjects, whereas the unpleasant sounds, although annoying, did not produce a misophonic reaction. The misophonic groups experienced increased heart rates and skin conductance, both signs of the body’s fight-or-flight response, when they heard trigger sounds.
The results, published in the journal Current Biology, determined that the anterior insular cortex, a part of the brain that joins our senses with our emotions, was overly active in people with misophonia. Kumar, told BBC News: “They (people with misophonia) are going into overdrive when they hear these sounds, but the activity was specific to the trigger sounds, not the other two sounds.” He further explained that the reaction is mostly anger, not disgust.
There is currently no cure, but coping mechanisms like using earplugs could help, and we know that alcohol and caffeine makes it worse.
The condition was first given the name misophonia in 2000, but until 2013, there had only been two case studies published, so this new research is providing powerful validation for the people suffering from this relatively unknown disorder. “I hope this will reassure sufferers,” Tim Griffiths, professor of cognitive neurology at Newcastle University and UCL, said in a press release. “I was part of the skeptical community myself until we saw patients in the clinic and understood how strikingly similar the features are.”