The Sound And The Fury: When Noise Makes You Crazy

Every one of us has a sound that drives us up the wall. Misophonia, literally the hatred of specific sounds, can cause serious problems in your personal life. But it may also be associated with increased creativity and intelligence.

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Most of us have negative reactions to certain sounds, the most famous of which is probably chalk or fingernails on a blackboard. (Interestingly, as chalk and blackboards go the way of the floppy disk, many people are just as bothered by the sound of dry erase markers squeaking on whiteboards.) But there’s a big difference between feeling annoyed by specific sounds and wanting to kill the person making them. If you fit into the latter category, you may have a condition called misophonia, literally the hatred of specific sounds. Misophonia (sometimes called selective sound sensitivity syndrome) has been around for as long as humans have had ears. But it wasn’t until 2002, when neurologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff coined the term, that the scientific community recognized and named this condition. Arjan Schröder and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam did an exhaustive study of misophonia and found that the most common trigger sounds fall into several categories: eating-related sounds (chewing, lip smacking, gum popping, soup slurping, ice crunching), breathing-related sounds (sniffing, snoring), and repeated sounds (fingers on a keyboard, foot tapping, pen clicking, candy unwrapping). Misophonia typically starts in the tween years and may affect as much as 20 percent of the population. Early on, reactions to the offending sounds typically start with irritation or disgust, but as the patient gets older, these can quickly morph into anger and physical or emotional aggression (which, unfortunately, some people act on). What also grows with age is the list of trigger sounds. Almost all misophonia sufferers describe feeling out of control and recognize that their reactions to the trigger sounds are excessive. Interestingly, in most cases people with misophonia experience these reactions only when the sounds are made by other people, not when they’re the ones making them. Unfortunately, there’s no surefire cure for misophonia. But many misophonics have discovered workarounds, such as avoiding situations where they’re likely to encounter offending sounds. For example, someone who can’t stand the sound of popcorn chomping would probably do well to stay out of movie theaters. Others use earplugs or devices that produce color noise (what we call “white noise” is just sound at a particular frequency that can block out other sounds–some misophonics need a different “color”). But what do you do when you can’t stand the sound of your wife’s breathing or your child’s sniffling? As you can imagine, misophonia can result in strained relationships and even divorce. Medical professionals and scientists have had some success with other approaches, including desensitization therapy (gradual exposure to the trigger sound), hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Although misophonia may sound rather dismal, there may be a silver lining: Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois did a study with 100 subjects and found that creativity and intelligence are strongly correlated with the inability to filter out unwanted or irrelevant sounds (what they called “leaky sensory gating”). They point to a number of highly creative people—including Franz Kafka, Charles Darwin, Anton Chekhov, and Marcel Proust—all of whom complained bitterly about noise. According to the study’s lead author, Darya Zabelina, “Creative people with ‘leaky’ sensory gating may have a propensity to deploy attention over a wider focus or a larger range of stimuli.”