The term “misophonia” was created in 2003 by audiologists Jastreboff and Jastreboff, but until 2013 we were aware of very few cases, and only two were actually being studied. Usually, when people hear of this disorder for the first time they find it funny. It’s a condition in which the subject feels an uncontrollable rage when they hear specific sounds or noises. The term “misophonia” comes from Greek and it literally means “hatred for sound”. The sound at issue is not necessarily disturbing for most people: hearing a woman screaming, for instance, or a child crying, can be irritating for anyone. This condition, on the other hand, has to do with sounds that don’t usually create displeasure for the average individual.
A trivial but recurring example of this type of disorder is the sound of someone chewing on a piece of gum. When we chew, we produce noises (loud or not, based on someone’s good manners!): it is this kind of acoustic stimuli that generate reactions that would normally be considered exaggerated. That is until Sukhbinger Kumar from Newcastle University (UK) published his research in Current Biology. Kumar’s findings show that when someone that has this rare pathology hears a noise that doesn’t sit well with them, this noise overwhelms a specific part of their brain. Even the ticking of a clock, the sound of someone snoring right next to us, their labored breathing, repetitive yawning, when someone swallows noisily, or constantly clicks their pen are all noises that might bother someone affected by misophonia. In the past we thought that people who went through this type of discomfort simply suffered from anxiety disorder, but now we know that it’s its own condition. One of the most typical and interesting features is that if it’s the subject affected by misophonia is the one producing the noises, than the noise is not going to bother them.
The overstimulation caused by this noise makes it hard for the subject’s brain to elaborate and digest a specific auditory stimulus, which is why those who have misophonia feels overwhelmingly angry and discomforted, as they cannot defend themselves from such the intense drive, almost as if someone was throwing a bucket of boiling water at them, or as if they were being hit by a tornado. It was a group of researchers in the University of California in San Diego, led by M. Edelstein and V. S. Ramachandran that obtained these results.
Subjects that suffer from this rare condition, therefore, aren’t hostile or unapproachable, but simply individuals whose brain has a reduced tolerance for a specific stimulus. The area at hand is the anterior insular cortex: this area is very deep in the cerebral mass and it’s particularly relevant in emotions, motivation, and it’s also significantly related to our ability to sympathize with other people’s pain. However, we still haven’t found a way to assess the definite causes for misophonia.
Doctor Sukhbinder Kumar, the professor of Cognitive Neurology who carried out this recent research, argues that the brain of those affected by misophonia is morphologically different from the brain of normal people: this factor might result useful, in the future, to come up with a specific therapy that could help people with misophonia to live without suffering from such dreaded acoustic stimuli.
The research, which still hasn’t found particularly fruitful results, also suggests that there is a strong correlation between misophonia and anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder but also depressive tendencies. Misophonia is particularly common for subjects who already suffer from hearing impairment, such as diagnosed hyperacusis or tinnitus.
Suggestions for further reading
- An article published in Australasian Psychiatry by George Bruxner
- The article from the Current Biology can be downloaded from this link https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)31530-5?_returnURL=http%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982216315305%3Fshowall%3Dtrue
Translation: Marina Traylor