We’ve all got certain words and sounds that annoy us to no end.
Maybe you despise the sound of nails on a chalkboard—a pretty common issue, but, as we’ll get into later, a knife on glass is significantly worse—or maybe you practically gag when you hear the word “moist.” Maybe you just really, really hate Fran Drescher’s laugh.
A super effective alarm would be a combination of Fran Drescher's laugh, Skrillex and Bieber fans screaming.
— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) August 3, 2012
In any case, sounds can create powerful, visceral reactions. Look into the science, however, and you’ll quickly realize annoying noises aren’t quite as simple as they might seem. They prompt reactions by activating our biology in bizarre, unsettling, and sometimes even therapy-warranting ways.
First of all, you hate words and noises for different reasons.
Let’s start with an important distinction: If you hate a certain word, you probably hate its meaning, not the way it sounds.
“Nonsense,” you’re probably saying. “I hate the word ‘moist’ because it feels gross to say. I have no problem with the meaning.”
Well, first of all, stop arguing with a screen.
Secondly, research shows that we hate certain words because we associate them with bodily functions and unpleasant experiences, not because we hate mouthing “moist,” “crevice,” or other words that cause discomfort. A 2016 study showed that word aversion is semantic rather than phonetic—generally, people who disliked “moist” also disliked “puke” or “damp,” but they didn’t mind “hoist” or “foist.”
The study found, too, that moist-averseness is linked to demographics. In fact, the prototypical moist-hater “is a young, neurotic, female who is well-educated and somewhat disgusted by bodily function.”[Editorial note: The study, linked here, contains a great deal of profanity and offensive language, and perhaps more importantly, the word “moist,” by our count, appears over 200 times. Click at your own risk.]
The study’s authors specifically focused on the word “moist” because it’s so hated; just over 20 percent of study participants showcased a “categorical aversion” to the word.
“[Moist] doesn’t really fit into a lot of existing categories for how people think about the psychology of language,” the study’s author, Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, told The New York Times in 2016. “It’s not a taboo word, it’s not profanity, but it elicits this very visceral disgust reaction.”
In any case, the distinction between the sound and meaning of words like “moist” is important since words are processed by different parts of the brain than simple noises.
We’re not going to claim to be neuroscientists, but here’s a basic overview: All sounds are initially processed by the auditory cortex, which then relays them to other parts of the brain. Language requires a specific type of interpretation; to determine the meaning of words, we use a system of regions toward the back and middle of the brain.
Noises, on the other hand, register in a more primitive part of the brain—and that’s really where the difference becomes important.
Most humans are annoyed by the pure phonetic qualities of certain sounds.
Ready for a dip into the moist recesses of the brain? When sounds annoy us, our amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions—becomes active.
Thanks to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, we know that the activity between the amygdala and the auditory cortex (the part of the brain that first recognizes the sound) varies depending on the extent of the unpleasantness.
Eating carrots in the office is easily one of the most annoying sounds. Sorry everyone 🤷🏼♀️
— Ellie Parker (@missparker988) July 25, 2018
The sound of a crowd cheering, for instance, might not create much of a reaction in the amygdala at all; highly unpleasant sounds like screaming babies, squeaking glass, or the squealing brakes of the city bus generate more of a reaction.
“It appears there is something very primitive kicking in,” Sukhbinder Kumar, one of the researchers who discovered this effect, said in a press release. “It’s a possible distress signal from the amygdala to the auditory cortex.”
That “distress signal” can actually activate our fight-or-flight response, which is extraordinarily uncomfortable—particularly if your brain isn’t able to distinguish between annoying sounds and dangerous sounds.
In extreme cases, sensitivity to sound can become a serious disorder.
Some people have extreme reactions to certain types of sounds due to misophonia, which is a relatively new name for a relatively well-known disorder (it was formerly called “auditory over-responsivity” or simply “auditory sensitivity,” but scientists love coming up with entirely new words to describe well-established phenomena).
For people suffering from misophonia, certain repetitive or pattern-based noises can feel overwhelming. People with extreme misophonia might feel as though they’re in constant danger when exposed to these types of trigger sounds, which makes life extraordinarily difficult.
Think about the feeling of being threatened or unsafe; that’s how some people with misophonia feel when confronted with common sounds like chewing, sneezing, pencil tapping, or keyboard typing. The sounds seem to be repulsive for their phonetic quality, not their meaning, although the current misophonia research is limited (more on that in a moment).
What’s even more alarming: At this time, there’s no cure for the condition.
Currently, researchers don’t know exactly how misophonia works on a neurological basis, but Jennifer Jo Brout, PsyD, licensed professional counselor, and director of the International Misophonia Research Network, says there are several promising theories.
One such theory: People with misophonia are neurologically incapable of simply ignoring repetitive noises, so something like the tapping of a pencil can gradually build up to an unbearable level.
“When we alert to new stimuli, our brain goes through a process in which we either continue to remain alert or you put [the stimuli] in the background,” she tells Urbo. “It’s a process called auditory gating. …Repetitive sounds, they build up if a person is not efficient in auditory gating. As they repeat, one focuses more and more on them.”
In other words, as sounds repeat, they become more and more distressing to misophonia sufferers, whose brains aren’t able to filter out the noises. The repetitive sounds quickly cause a fear response, which is difficult to counter, since it happens almost immediately.
“[The response] happens in a millisecond,” Brout says. “It happens way before you have any sort of awareness of it. By the time you realize that you’re scared, your body’s already there.”
People living with misophonia have to deal with popular misconceptions about the disorder, which can add to the stress.
“People think that it starts in adolescence, or that it’s the result of a traumatic event, like PTSD,” Brout says. “And things like trauma can also be triggered by certain stimuli, so the confusion is understandable, but for [people with misophonia], the misconceptions aren’t helpful.”
“With PTSD, there’s an event, or a number of events, [causing the condition],” she adds. “With misophonia, there’s no known event, but the cue [sound] kicks off the response, just as it would with PTSD.”
Issues like misophonia are difficult to study—and even more difficult to treat.
Brout says she suffers from misophonia, and because she’s noticed symptoms of the condition in her children, she believes it might have a genetic component.
“I definitely see it running in families,” she says, “but the only genetic ‘study’ is from [genomics and biotechnology company] 23andMe, and it’s not really a scientific study, per se.”
That highlights one of the big problems with misophonia research: Currently, scientists are focused on finding a cure, but the disorder itself hasn’t been studied in-depth.
“People are talking treatment, treatment, treatment,” Brout says. “Well, we don’t even know what causes it.”
People with misophonia can treat some of the symptoms and learn to live with the condition, but it’s not an easy process.
it’s 2018 and we still don’t have any treatment for misophonia. are we seriously going to live with this condition forever?? stay tuned
— Michella (@MichaHany) January 1, 2018
“Occupational therapists really have a handle on this, since they deal with the sensory response,” Brout says. “Treatment means deconstructing some of the thought processes that come from feeling attacked by the stimuli [and] practical coping skills—if you’re getting revved up, leave the room, and usually you’re better off.”
Of course, before patients can receive treatment for misophonia, they have to be sure they actually have the condition. That’s not always easy.
“People need to make sure there’s absolutely nothing else going on,” Brout says. “Tick-borne illnesses, for example, can make you over-sensitive to stimuli. So can endocrine disorders or thyroid disorders, and, of course, PTSD. Some people might think they have misophonia, but then the problem goes away when they get treatment for one of those other conditions.”
Not to freak you out before your big camping trip, but that’s true—tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease can cause neurological symptoms similar to misophonia.
Researchers like Brout are working to expand our knowledge of auditory sensitivities, including misophonia, which might eventually allow for breakthrough treatments. For the time being, however, people with severe misophonia are simply forced to deal with the condition.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re annoyed by your co-worker’s pencil-tapping habits or your partner’s perpetual sneezing; things could always be much, much worse.