Wendy Aron

Sounds Awful

Music to My Ears

Why my disorder may be universal.

Posted May 22, 2013

Here’s news: Everyone, to a certain extent, has misophonia.


At least that’s what researchers in the UK discovered when they placed 13 random volunteers in functional magnetic resonance imaging scans and studied how their brains reacted when they were exposed to sounds they deemed unpleasant (i.e. a knife on a bottle) or pleasant (i.e. applause).


“Researchers found that the activity of the amygdala and the auditory cortex varied in direct relation to the ratings of perceived unpleasantness given by the subjects,” according to a press release issued by Newcastle University Medical School, where the study was conducted.


The neuroscientists involved concluded that when the typical person hears an unpleasant sound, the emotional part of the brain sends a “distress signal” to its processing region, in essence taking control and provoking a negative response.


When the researchers further analyzed the acoustic features of the sounds, they found that any sound between 2,000 to 5,000 Hz was deemed the most offensive, indicating that this is the range where the average person’s ears are at their most sensitive.


I caught up with Tim Griffiths, the cognitive neurologist who led the study, to get his thoughts on misophonia sufferers and how he thought we compared to the subjects in his study.


“I have now seen a small number of patients with misophonia in the clinic and it cannot be simply explained by certain sounds triggering an extreme emotional reaction,” Dr. Griffiths said via email.


Griffiths continued: “I say that because of the situational nature of misophonia: the same sound made by different people can lead to greatly different perceptions. Misophonia sufferers typically experience an extreme reaction when sounds are made by people they know well, but not by others. Sometimes pictures of people [they know] eating can trigger it, too.”


Dr. Griffiths had read my previous blogs and acknowledged that many misophonics, including myself, are also affected by trigger sounds and sights made by strangers. He said he is aware that misophonic triggers vary and can expand over time and that he is planning further study.


“We are considering a study of the phenomenon using an fMRI for research purposes,” he said. “We are interested in whether the connection from the amygdala to the auditory cortex is abnormal in sufferers. We think the amygdala attributes valence to unpleasant sounds and that this is what goes wrong in the condition.”


I immediately thought of a story I had read about the Connectome, an $8.5 million brain scanner installed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston that is reportedly eight times as powerful as a conventional MRI. I thought a scanner like this might be a perfect diagnostic tool for misophonia.


But Dr. Griffiths, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine, was definitive; “I do not think scanning will ever be used for diagnosis or even be needed, given the striking phenomenology [of misophonia].”


Okay, so maybe we are special.