Some people find noises, such as alarms, ticking, chewing or crunching to be totally intolerable, while others are not bothered at all. These reactions raise a psychological question about how the brain reacts to certain noises.
Robert Gordon, senior lecturer and director of the department of undergraduate psychology at Auburn University, said he is not an expert on hearing, but he does know of three related reactions that might explain why an individual could be finding noises unfavorable.
“[Misophonia] tends to be a strong emotional reaction you have to hearing particular sounds,” Gordon said. “A classic example would be body-related sounds like chewing or sounds like breathing or sounds of someone clipping their nails. A lot of repetitive sounds could be like this as well, [for example] the clinking of the spoon while someone stirs their drink.”
While Gordon is not an expert on misophonia, he has it. He explained this disorder as an unreasonable annoyance with or anger toward the person making the offending noises. Misophonia does not mean every noise listed as an example will drive someone crazy; only certain noises will elicit a strong emotional reaction, Gordon said. He also said this is what sets it apart from other conditions.
A lot is still unknown of this condition.
“It is the most recently recognized,” Gordon said. “There is some evidence it may be based on a learned reaction, like you have learned to associate this sound in a negative way.”
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Some argue this could be compared to classical conditioning, some argue.
“Stress or anxiety produced an emotional reaction within you, and now you associate this sound with it, so the sound now produces the reaction within you,” he said in terms of why some consider this classical conditioning.
Another prediction as to why or how people obtain this is “physiological differences in the brains of people who have misophonia,” he said. “You may have an abnormal response in the emotional centers of the brain.”
Gordon also mentioned there could be damage in the ear, specifically to the hair cells or auditory nerve that is causing this kind of reaction.
This prediction could relate to the learned component, but it also could be differences in one’s brain. There has not been enough research and tests done on this new subject to know if both are the true cause.
Another condition called hyperacusis can be confused with the latter condition; however, what sets it apart is an overall greater sensitivity to sound in terms of reaction. Things seem louder to them, Gordon said.
It makes sounds seem louder and more intense than they actually are.
“People who have it are not more sensitive to sounds in the sense they can hear quieter sounds,” Gordon said. “It’s not like they have really good hearing, it’s just they have this intense reaction to sound, where at medium intensity, it just sounds so loud.”
While it is not specific sounds that trigger the reaction, it could be certain ranges and frequencies, Gordon said.
The reaction can still be very emotional and cause pain as a response, while another response might be increased anxiety or anger. These reactions are very similar to the ones of misophonia, and Gordon explained this is how the two get confused.
Phonophobia is a fear that can be confused with the others, specifically misophonia because it is an emotional reaction to a type of noise, but it is a fear that is learned rather than a physiological reaction.
“If you come to associate an alarm with the fact you have to get up and go to work or school, and that is something that you find upsetting or stressful or produces anxiety, the sound of the alarm itself can come to produce that feeling of anxiety, too,” Gordon said.
This would be a reason why hearing the noise outside of that situation could produce the same reaction from hearing the noise.
The areas of the brain affected by these conditions is the limbic system because that is the emotional area of the brain. The amygdala is the area that processes emotion in the limbic system.
“In misophonia, you sometimes see abnormally high activity in the amygdala, which just shows that you are having an emotional experience,” Gordon said.
There are still a lot of uncertainties on why these reactions happen because of lack of research.
There are ways to reverse these conditions.
“The thing that is most effective (in reversing misophonia) is a therapy called cognitive behavior therapy,” Gordon said. “This is often true for phobias, too. What this focuses on is the emotional part of this.”
This therapy is about restructuring the way one thinks about the noise and how they want to react to it.
“For example, you might use cognitive behavioral therapy to help people understand that when other people are making chewing noises, they are not intentionally doing something to make you miserable,” he explained.
Another way would be to face the noise full on.
Gordon said, for phonobia, he has heard exposing someone to the sound in a way that as they are hearing that sound, they are doing something that is reducing the feelings of anxiety and is taking place in a safe and environmentally beneficial area.
This is also a way to help with misophonia due to the anxiety reduction from this treatment. Therefore, one may be able to stop associating these negative noises with unfavorable emotions.
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