Misophonia

Winston Churchill was a valiant soldier, led his nation into war against terrible odds, and bore withering criticism and numerous insults during his embattled political career. He weathered defeat and ostracism; he could take it all. But he could not take whistling. The very embodiment of British toughness, of the “stiff upper lip,” broke down into quivering rage at the sound.

Churchill’s bodyguard, W.H. Thompson, described it thus: “It sets up an almost psychiatric disturbance in him — intense, immediate and irrational. I have seen him expostulate with boys on the street who were whistling as he passed.”

In recent days, Thompson’s diagnosis of “almost psychiatric disturbance” received spot-on confirmation from British scientists working on the cutting edge of neurological research.

A team at Newcastle University has produced evidence based on bran scan analysis that people who are ultra-sensitive to certain sounds suffer from a brain abnormality. The condition, known as misophonia, was located in the frontal lobe, which undergoes neurological activity different than non-sufferers when exposed to a “trigger sound.” The researchers found that such sounds could even cause physiological responses, including accelerated heart rate and sweating.

Among the trigger sounds studied were not only such classic causes of teeth-gnashing as loud chewing or breathing or repeated pen-clicking or nails being clipped, but even more neutral sounds like rain or water boiling.

Very interesting. But of what practical use are their findings, beyond classification in textbooks as a bona fide neurological disorder (Moller, A.R., “Misophonia, Phonophobia, and ‘Exploding Head’ Syndrome,” in Textbook of Tinnitus, 2010)?

Dr. Sukhbinder Kumar, of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University and the Wellcome Centre for NeuroImaging at University College London, explained its immediate benefit: “For many people with misophonia, this will come as welcome news, as for the first time we have demonstrated a difference in brain structure and function in sufferers. This study demonstrates the critical brain changes as further evidence to convince a skeptical medical community that this is a genuine disorder.”

How much will it reassure misophonia sufferers that their sensitivity has an official scientific name and can be looked up in neurological textbooks? Does it make the condition any more real or any less “their fault”? What have the Newcastle researchers accomplished, except to say that the fault is, so to speak, not just in their minds, but in their brains? Either way, the offending sound still drives them up the wall.

Indeed, the effort to have misophonia classified officially as a neurological disorder makes us a bit nervous.

For one thing, the condition is so common as to suggest that there is nothing abnormal about it at all. While no firm statistics exist, the few attempts at estimating it put the number at 10 to 20 percent of the general population suffering from it. If the world population is currently about 7.5 billion, that means between 750 million and 1.5 billion people have some form of misophonia. Should they all see a doctor? (Yes, there are treatments, and they might help a little.)

What all this means is simply that, whatever the reason, a lot of people are sensitive to certain noises, which is something we knew before the Newcastle study.

Perhaps the benefit is, rather, the other way around — that is, it reminds those who make these sounds that they might be causing real pain or discomfort to another person. Since so many are affected, it is all the more reason to adjust one’s habits so as to avoid it. The age-old admonition to “chew with your mouth closed” takes on added resonance. We would not recommend a ban on whistling, but if you know that it does happen to bother someone, try to refrain from it in their presence.

Finally, an intriguing question was posed by Aage R. Moller, of the University of Texas, who asked why it is that certain sounds are triggers while others, even similar ones, are not? For example, the same person who finds the sound of finger-tapping on a wooden desk intolerable might be unfazed by a woodpecker hammering on a tree? Moller had no answer.

It puts us in mind of the Gemara (Chagigah 5a), which says that Rav and Shmuel gave differing teachings about the meaning of a phrase in Koheles (Chap. 12): “Every deed Elokim will bring into judgment, every hidden thing.”

“What is meant by ‘every hidden thing’? Rav said it refers to one who kills a louse in front of his fellow, who is disgusted by it. Shmuel said it refers to one who spits in front of his friend, who is disgusted by it.”

The Gemara leaves it at that and does not delve into the point of the dispute, why Rav says a louse, not spitting, and Shmuel seems to say the opposite.

However, it might be that they are not arguing at all, and that the examples they give are not exclusive of each other or anything else. Both Rav and Shmuel recognize that these sensitivities vary among people, and that one should take care to avoid the particular behavior that offends that person.

This reminds us that we need to take the feelings of others into consideration, even when they are different than our own.