If the sound of chalk scraping down a blackboard makes you want to run screaming from the classroom, or if listening to your sibling chewing a chop makes you want to up-end the dining table, scientists in the UK believe there may be a reason for your reaction.
A brain link has been identified in people suffering from misophonia – meaning ‘hatred of sound’ – which can produce an extreme response to certain sounds.
Researchers from Newcastle University in the UK have discovered for the first time that people suffering from misophonia experience increased connectivity in the brain between the auditory cortex* – or sound centre – and the motor control areas related to the face, mouth and throat.
“Our findings indicate that for people with misophonia, there is abnormal communication between the auditory and motor brain regions – you could describe it as a ‘supersensitised connection’,” said lead author of the Journal of Neuroscience paper, Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, Newcastle University Research Fellow in the Biosciences Institute.
“This is the first time such a connection in the brain has been identified for the condition,” he said.
Misophonia sufferers experience intense, reflexive reactions to certain sounds made by other people, referred to by researchers as ‘trigger sounds’. Usually connected to mouth, throat or facial activity, common sounds affecting people with the condition include someone else’s chewing, breathing, sniffing or speaking.
While reactions can seem extreme to an observer, the sounds produce strong, spontaneous feelings in the sufferer, including anger and disgust.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because misophonia is a common condition, affecting anywhere between six to 20 per cent of people. Those with the more severe forms can find themselves unable to bear family, work, public or social situations.
Previously considered a disorder of sound processing, the researchers suggest misophonia may in fact have a visual element.
“What surprised us was that we also found a similar pattern of communication between the visual and motor regions, which reflects that misophonia can also occur when triggered by something visual,” Dr Kumar said.
“This (leads) us to believe that this communication activates something called the ‘mirror system’, which helps us process movements made by other individuals by activating our own brain in a similar way – as if we were making that movement ourselves.
“We think that in people with misophonia, involuntary* overactivation* of the mirror system leads to some kind of sense that sounds made by other people are intruding into their bodies, outside of their control.
“Interestingly, some people with misophonia can lessen their symptoms by mimicking* the action generating the trigger sound, which might indicate restoring a sense of control.”
Both Dr Kumar and a co-author of the study, Newcastle University Professor of Cognitive Neurology Tim Griffiths, said the findings provide new ways to think about treatments for misophonia.
“Instead of focusing on sound centres in the brain, which many existing therapies do, effective therapies should consider motor areas of the brain as well,” Prof Griffiths said.
- auditory cortex: the brain’s sensory area for hearing, located on the upper side of the temporal lobe, it receives and processes sound inputs.
- involuntary: unforced, spontaneous, unconscious
- overactivation: excessively or abnormally active
- mimicking: imitating someone’s words or actions
- What is the condition meaning ‘hatred of sound’ called?
- What are some common sounds affecting people with the condition?
- What percentage of people are believed to be sufferers?
- What surprised the researchers about their findings?
- What do the researchers hope their findings provide in terms of treatment of the condition?
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1. Sum it up
How would you explain misophonia to somebody who has never heard of it? Sum up the condition in approximately 50 words. You will need to choose carefully what information to include and what to leave out in order to give the best possible explanation within the word limit.
Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English
What sound (or other occurrence) do you find most annoying? Describe how it makes you feel and how your body reacts when you hear this sound or experience this occurrence. Do you have any strategies that you use to regulate your emotions when this happens?
Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Personal and Social Capabilities
Wondrous Wow Words
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.