Can’t stand the sound of people typing or tapping their toes in the office? It’s not your fault – it’s how your brain’s wired, a new study finds.
Some people barely notice noises around them, but for others, the sound of someone eating a bag of crisps two desks down or tap-tap-tapping away on their keyboard is enough to feel full-body rage. If you fall into that latter camp, you’re probably living with misophonia – a hatred or disgust of certain sounds.
While we all deal with little annoyances on a daily basis, misophonia is different. It can make it impossible to concentrate or stay calm; those tiny noises deafen everything else around you. And because they’re often so inconsequential (who really cares if someone’s having a snack?), reacting to the noise can often get you written off as being a hothead.
But new research confirms that we’re not overreacting when we start to sweat at the sound of someone tapping their feet on the office floor.
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While we’ve known about misophonia for a while, the causes of the condition haven’t been widely understood. In fact, the vast majority of the research and chat around the issue has surrounded a disgust or hatred of chewing and other mouth-based noises like swallowing or lip smacking.
But this new paper, published in the journal Frontiers In Neuroscience, has confirmed that noises that have nothing to do with the face or mouth can prompt an equally vicious reaction in people with misophonia.
What causes misophonia in some people?
Ohio State University scientists have been exploring the causes of misophonia, which they say can affect up to 20% of people. They’ve been looking at what happens in the brain when people tapped their fingers repeatedly – a sound that can be a trigger for some people with the condition.
Previous research has looked at what happens when people with misophonia are exposed to the sound of people chewing, but the lead author of this new study, Helen Hansen, says that the “story of what is happening in the brain in misophonia is incomplete if we only focus on what happens when people hear chewing and related sounds”.
So, Hansen and her team got 19 adults to have brain scans while performing various tasks. They each completed three questionnaires that measured their levels of misophonia, which ranged from none to mild.
The first task involved saying various syllables out loud. The fMRI results showed which regions of the brain were activated by speech, which overlaps with orofacial movement (responsible for sounds like chewing). Then, they were asked to tap their fingers on their legs repeatedly. And lastly, participants were scanned while doing nothing.
It’s not just chewing that can cause distress
The study found that in participants who scored higher on misophonia, there was a stronger connection between regions of the brain associated with finger movement and sensation and the insula area of the brain, which is linked to strong emotions, including disgust.
The team confirmed that misophonia can involve distress caused by a variety of repetitive noises – with visible evidence by way of brain activity in people disliking sounds that aren’t created from the mouth and face.
More research needs to be done still, but this is a breakthrough in understanding why noise has such a profound impact on some of us.
So, if you’ve got to wear sound-cutting headphones to deal with the stress of working near other people typing on their laptops or tapping their feet on the floor, know that there’s a biological reason for that feeling. It’s not just you being a narky colleague after all.
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