Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Ear horror – misophonia: When chewing noises become torture

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As soon as someone bites into an apple, do you walk up the walls? This hypersensitivity could be behind it.

Let’s try something. Put on headphones, please.

Now turn up the volume and just wait and see what happens while listening to the following clip:

What do you feel?

Hunger? Fancy a crispy, juicy Braeburn? Or is what’s settling in her stomach more like discomfort, perhaps even aggression? Fury?

The soup as an acoustic final opponent

Then you may be one of the six to 20 percent of the world’s population who suffer from misophonia.

For you, eating your partner’s carrots becomes a horror trip. The cinema neighbor’s grab of popcorn is an inner test. The ballpoint pen in the bank teller’s hand becomes the ultimate enemy.

Those affected by misophonia suffer from acoustic hypersensitivity, a “hatred of noises”, as the two Greek root words “misos” = hate and “phone” = noise suggest.

Social phobias and eating disorders

The hatred in question is so great that in extreme cases it is no longer even possible to have lunch breaks or movie nights together. Around two percent of those affected even develop social phobias or eating disorders due to their hatred of noise, as studies by the US Misophonia Institute show.

But the stress caused can also be measured in less dramatic cases, as a study from the Netherlands shows: after just a few seconds, those affected’ heartbeat and breathing accelerate.

Traumatic experiences as triggers

The reason for the acoustic intolerance? The two American neuroscientists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, who first investigated the phenomenon in 1990, suspected that traumatic experiences were triggered by the noises. Misophonia was later viewed as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The most common trigger sounds

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    Researchers at Bielefeld University conducted a study on the topic of attention control and misophonia in 2021. Among other things, those affected should indicate noises that trigger anger and aggression in them.

  • In 96 percent of cases, it is eating noises that trigger an internal pile-up.
  • 85 percent cited nasal noises as a trigger.
  • 77 percent are triggered by clacking noises.
  • 62 percent of those affected declared throat and environmental noises to be their acoustic red flags.

Increased attention and emotions

A study published in the journal Psychological Thought in 2015 showed increased activity in the anterior insular cortex, the area in our brain that decides where we focus our attention. Misophonia sufferers were significantly less able to divert their attention from unimportant sounds.

The study also showed that brain regions responsible for emotions are more activated in those affected.


Popcorn: For some people it’s just popped corn. For others, an instrument of torture.


Chewing muscles are to blame

The surprise came in 2021 when the British neuroscientist Sukhbinder Kumar was able to show that the hatred of noises may have nothing to do with noises at all.

“Our data make it clear that the part of the brain that controls our chewing muscles is more activated in misophonia patients than in controls.” The researcher explains that this part is also much more closely connected to the area that processes sound and vision.

Invasion of personal space

What does that mean specifically? «That the brain of those affected by misophonia thinks that they would chew themselves just by listening or watching another person.

The researchers assume that this activation of the motor areas is perceived as a violation of “personal space”: “In our study, those affected by misophonia described the noises as something that penetrated their bodies.”

But what can those affected do about it? According to Kumar: smack your lips, chew and sip. “Imitating the action can provide relief because it gives you the feeling of being in control of the action and not being “controlled from outside.” Sounds like a fun dinner.

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You can find all episodes of “SRF Einstein²” on Play SRF.

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