It was the salads that got me. On nights when my parents started off dinner with some leafy greens, I left the room. The habit quickly became a ritual, and to my family’s credit – or not – no one ever remarked on it. It was just another quirk, like biting fingernails, or sticking your tongue out when you concentrate.
You see, to me, the sounds of chewing salad were unendurable. The crisp crunching noises and the scrape and squeak of utensils on ceramic dinnerware felt like a personal affront, a stimulus manufactured to induce rosy-red rage inside. I felt an inexplicable urge to hurl plates and bowls against the walls. So, I left the table.
As I grew up and moved away, the problem faded into the background, or, at least, I learned to deal with it. Not till much later did I discover that there was a name for these irrational fits of anger, and a diagnosis to accompany it.
Misophonia is an aversive reaction to specific sounds, often in the form of annoyance that turns quickly to anger. Eating, chewing gum and typing on keyboards are all commonly listed triggers. But it varies from person to person. Human-made noises are most likely to cause the reaction, and these sounds typically come from people who misophonia sufferers are close to, like family and friends. The condition typically starts during childhood or adolescence. And while scientists don’t know exactly how many people are affected, one study of almost 500 undergraduates found some level of misophonia in 20 percent of them.
The severity of reactions ranges across a fairly broad spectrum, from mild to debilitating. Some people can control their symptoms with minimal difficulty, while others find themselves unable to endure even basic social situations.
The best correlate I’ve found is getting cut off in traffic. You know you shouldn’t feel so angry, but that fury is unstoppable.
Babies screaming on airplanes, car alarms in the night — these sounds annoy me as much as they do anyone. But the misophonia touches a more primal place. The response is guttural, arousing emotions embedded deep in an animal past. The reactions that were called for when strangers crept up on our food or grabbed for our mates. And all because of some lettuce.
Misophonia got its name just under 20 years ago. A husband and wife research team at Emory University was studying tinnitus – the sensation of ringing in the ears – when they noticed something different about some of their patients. Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff found that some people seemed to have oddly specific, and oddly intense, reactions to particular sounds. Their symptoms didn’t fit the descriptions of hyperacusis or phonophobia, aversions to loud sounds and sounds in general, respectively, so they came up with a new name.
Misophonia means “hatred of sound” — something of a misnomer, as misophonics only hate certain sounds. But the name stuck, and, nearly two decades on, the condition has begun to attract legitimate scientific attention.
Several studies have looked at groups of people who say they experience misophonia. One provided some validation for the condition by tracking heightened levels of skin conductance (a common measure of bodily arousal) when participants heard sounds that triggered them. It’s an indication that the sounds somehow touch off the autonomic nervous system, responsible, among other things, for our fight-or-flight-response.
The same study also suggested that misophonia has many of the same qualities as synesthesia. That’s the condition that leads people to perceive letters as colors, or assign specific identities to different numbers. The emotional reactions evoked by certain sounds are a similar kind of cross-sensory perception, the researchers note, and might stem from the same underlying brain mechanism.
The link to synesthesia remains unproven. But if it’s true, misophonia may be just another manifestation of the synesthetic experience. If so, I can’t help but feel a bit slighted.
Van Gogh heard symphonies when he looked at a painting; I get the equivalent of a single, jarring tone. All the wires that get crossed in my brain end up at a single place: a metaphorical button marked “rage.”
Suffering to Sublime
But other studies offer hints that misophonia might stem from something entirely different. One group of scientists had misophonics sit in an MRI scanner and then played trigger sounds. Compared to a control group, the misophonics had unusually high amounts of activity in their anterior insula, a brain region involved with emotional processing. Not only that, but their anterior insulas seemed to have unusual connections to parts of the brain dealing with memory.
“It seems as if, for example, when they are listening to these sounds, their past experiences with those sounds are coming to bear,” says Sukhbinder Kumar, a researcher at Newcastle University and co-author of the study. “It’s not just this sound, but all past memories, past experiences associated with this sound, they are coming to bear on the anterior insula, which makes [it] highly active.”
So, a negative experience long ago that we associate with a particular sound — even if the two weren’t related — might explain the ongoing fight-or-flight reactions that misophonics experience.
Pawel Jastreboff agrees. In fact, he thinks that misophonia is a condition nearly anyone could theoretically get, though some people might be more susceptible to it.
“I think that I know how to create misophonia to any type of sound in anybody. I could make you climbing the walls hearing the sound of clicking of my glasses,” he says, tapping them for emphasis.
But Kumar isn’t quite so sure — he thinks underlying psychological factors may predispose some people to the condition. He says we need more research into the neurological underpinnings of the condition, and the complex ways misophonia is affected by environment and history.
But before we begin any Freudian dives into my past, I have to let you in on a secret. Yes, some sounds inexplicably annoy me. But those same sounds, those that send my blood toward its boiling point — I also really, really like them.
The sound of chewing can send tingles racing through my skull, and pens whispering against paper are mysteriously relaxing. And where I can’t be with my family when they’re eating salads, a stranger munching lettuce right next to me is oddly sublime.
Ties to ASMR?
It’s a phenomenon known as ASMR (for autonomous sensory meridian response — the name is largely scientific gobbledygook). By now, you’ve probably heard of it. Videos by ASMRtists on Youtube rack up hundreds of thousands of views, featuring haircuts, hotel check-ins, wordless whispers, tapping and much more. Many people use the videos to help them fall asleep.
Specific trigger sounds, often those at once both sharp and muted, give those who experience ASMR a wave of pleasant shivers, accompanied by a sensation of calm and relaxation. Most people tend to prefer triggers made by people, but some people report thing like the sound of water running through pipes can elicit ASMR. Others don’t even need sound, reacting instead to lights flashed at their faces.
What brings the tingles is still a mystery. They can seem superficially similar to the sensation of chills down the spine that particularly moving music or art brings, though studies suggest that the two are separate phenomenon. And there seems to be no link to sexual pleasure.
As of yet, few scientists have examined the experience, though a recent study looking at participants who self-reported ASMR tingles did provide evidence that something real was indeed happening. When viewing videos designed to produce an ASMR response, the participants’ heart rates went down, an indication of relaxation. Meanwhile, their skin conductance levels increased, indicating bodily arousal. Taken together, the results suggest that something involuntary — and thus real — was happening to the subjects when they watched ASMR videos.
This validation of ASMR as a real phenomenon was a necessary first step toward researching the condition. But it was the paradoxical combination of reactions that intrigued study co-author Giulia Poerio, a psychology researcher at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. People experiencing ASMR seem to be both relaxed and stimulated at the same time, she says, something that hints at the multifaceted nature of the experience.
“It’s really interesting from the perspective of emotional science because it seems to be this quite complex emotion in the same way that things like nostalgia are complex emotions because they involve a blending of emotional states,” she says.
One of the only studies to use brain imaging to study ASMR-sensitive individuals found changes in a region of the brain that controls control inward-looking thoughts related to memories and emotions. Based on this, the researchers think those with ASMR might not be able to suppress experiences that involve both senses and emotions. Feeling happy tingles when exposed to certain sounds, then, might be the result.
But puzzlingly, not everyone seems to have access to this emotional state. Though it’s certainly not uncommon, there seems to be a sharp divide between those who experience ASMR and those who don’t.
The Misophonia Paradox
What to make, then, of someone who experiences both of these similar, yet functionally opposed, conditions? Is there a scientific explanation for this auditory sadomasochism?
Poerio wasn’t at all surprised by my revelation. She experiences both ASMR and misophonia as well, she says, and she thinks that’s fairly common. Her research group is in the process of launching a study to further explore the connection. Jastreboff, too, says he’sseen patients with both conditions.
Though the two conditions differ radically in outward experience, they might actually have more in common than it seems.
“Our working hypothesis is [it] reflects an underlying sensory sensitivity,” Poerio says. “It’s that people that experience ASMR or misophonia, all of those sorts of things, experience the world in a different way. The connection between the external world and their emotions is different to someone that doesn’t.”
It’s a subtle variation of the neural maps in our brains, in other words. The inputs leading variously to anger or to bliss are routed from different places in those with misophonia and ASMR. And, in some cases, they overlap.
Personally, I can’t offer much insight into why some sounds can inspire such wildly different reactions in my head. But I can say that it is bewildering to me, and occasionally disorienting. I have, in rare instances, even felt myself teetering on a fine line between misophonia and ASMR, between anger and happiness. With a mental shove, I force myself to the light.
Sounds in the Brain
It might have something to with the situation, Kumar thinks. Most people with misophonia only get it in certain situations, an indication that context matters when it comes to the condition. ASMR operates on similar principles. The most forceful reactions usually come when the sounds are made by people, not machines, and come most commonly from specific, often personal, interactions. Haircuts, for example, or makeup tutorials.
Kumar points out that our brains process sounds in more than one region. On the lowest level, our brains are attuned solely to the acoustic signatures of a sound. But higher up in the mental hierarchy, an incoming sound wave will also activate regions of the brain tied to things like emotion or memory. And these higher-order regions aren’t just influenced by sound.
Sonic triggers fall into an environment that’s already been primed one way or another, Kumar thinks, and this might help explain why some people have such strong reactions to sound. And because sounds linger in our memories, a trigger sound that annoyed you once might stick around to haunt you in different situations.
There’s no evidence of link between memory and ASMR yet, and it could be that the tingles come from a totally different place in our minds. But there does seem to be an element of social bonding at play. Poerio found in one study that participants reported feeling more connected to other people after watching ASMR videos. It makes sense, given they often feature basic means of interaction with other humans like grooming. Seen in this light, ASMR might be an evolutionary nudge toward social interaction, a little reward for bonding with our fellow humans. That it comes with an evil twin for me might just be part of the bargain.
For now, misophonia is something I simply have to deal with, while ASMR remains a delightful quirk of the human mind. There are some proposed methods of treating misophonia, mostly involving variations of cognitive behavioral therapy. Jastreboff says he’s had success treating misophonics using an approach that uses multiple kinds of stimuli to slowly retrain the brain away from negative reactions in response to certain sounds. He’s even cured some people completely, he claims, though those results haven’t been replicated by anyone else.
I’m not sure whether dealing with my misophonia would affect how I experience ASMR. It seems likely the two operate in different ways. But if they are somehow functionally connected, if quieting the anger would also dim the bliss, I’m not sure what I would choose. Does the good balance out the bad? Or, more fundamentally, is it better to feel than to be numb?
It’s a question I’ll likely never have to answer. For now, these sonic pushes and pulls are simply a reminder to myself that things often engender their opposites. Pain and pleasure — twins through and through.