Does the sound of whistling enrage you? How about the noise of someone eating? It now seems likely that those people who get infuriated by certain sounds might not just be being fussy, but actually have brains hardwired to produce an excessive emotional response to particular noises.
Known as misophonia, it has long been thought that people suffer from the condition, but that it doesn’t have any basis in neurology, just that sometimes people get annoyed by certain sounds. But to those suffering from misophonia, it is more than that. They are not simply annoyed by particular "trigger" sounds, they are actively enraged or stressed by it, often feeling like going into a fight or flight response.
Now for the first time researchers have conducted brain scans on those with the condition, and found physical differences as to how their brains are wired. Using 22 participants, the scientists played them a range of different noises while tracking their brains in MRI scanners. The sounds were either neutral (such as rain), unpleasant (like a baby screaming), or the individual's trigger noise, which could be anything ranging from eating crisps to sneezing.
What they found was that the region of the brain that links our senses with our emotions was connected differently, and often sent into overdrive when those with misophonia hear their trigger sounds. It is this that causes these people to not just feel annoyed by the noises, but to have genuine anger or hatred, feel threatened, panicked, or stressed when they hear them.
"I feel there's a threat and get the urge to lash out – it's the fight or flight response," explained Olana Tansley-Hancock, one of the subjects, to BBC News. "It's not a general annoyance, it's an immediate 'Oh my God, what is that sound?' I need to get away from it or stop it.'"
Other subjects described a feeling of shame and embarrassment afterwards at what they thought of as their overreaction, even though they couldn't control it.
“They are going into overdrive when they hear these sounds, but the activity was specific to the trigger sounds not the other two sounds,” explained Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, who co-authored the study published in Current Biology, to BBC News. “The reaction is anger mostly, it's not disgust, the dominating emotion is the anger – it looks like a normal response, but then it is going into overdrive.”
While those who have misophonia may now feel vindicated that what they experience is a genuine condition, the results don’t unfortunately tell medical professionals how to cope with it. Those who have been living with it for years may have come up with their own strategies, such as simply wearing earplugs, or avoiding or leaving places where their trigger sound may occur, but it now seems that there could be a more technical way to treat it.