We all know at least one person who loses his damn mind over things like the sound of chewing, slurping or silverware hitting someone’s teeth. And guess what. All those times you’ve wondered either to yourself or out loud about whether there’s something wrong with him, you were right. There is in fact a name for that. No, not moody pain in the ass, eeven though that one’s often accurate. It’s actually called Misophonia, and it can be quite rough for some people.
“For people who suffer,” says Jennifer Brout, a psychologist in Westport, Connecticut, who specializes in treating children with misophonia, “it’s as though the brain misinterprets the auditory stimuli and experiences it as harmful or toxic or dangerous.” The body responds, she says, by going into fight-or flight-mode. “It happens,” she adds, “in a millisecond.”
To help explain the mechanics of misophonia, Brout uses the example of a sleeping dog hearing, say, a door clicking shut. “The dog’s response is to wake up and think, is that something I need to be aware of?” If so, the dog barks or runs off to hide. If not, the dog goes back to sleep and pays no more attention to the sound. “In misophonia, there is no decrease in response; there is an increase,” Brout says. “You just keep alerting to the sound.”
Eventually, she stumbled upon the work of Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, doctors who were treating patients at Emory University for tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, and hyperacusis, conditions in which sound is perceived as abnormally loud or physically painful. The couple noticed that some of their subjects had a specific type of decreased sound tolerance, where specific patterns of sounds, rather than decibel levels, set them off. Something, they hypothesized, was amiss between the auditory pathways in the brain and the pathways in which emotions are processed. In 2001, the Jastreboffs proposed the name for this condition, calling it misophonia, which means hatred of sound.