In 2002 Margaret and Pawel Jastreboff — a married research team from Emory University — coined the term misophonia, for “hatred of sound.” It describes a condition which causes the sufferer to develop extreme feelings of anger in response to certain noises – noises that don’t bother anyone else – with the specific triggers varying from person to person.
In 2013, a Dutch study of 42 people afflicted with the condition demonstrated that the main triggers were sounds produced by the body: think chewing, lip-smacking, swallowing; breathing, nostril noises, sneezing, or knuckle-cracking. They discovered that the average age of onset was 13 years old and the most common response these people had to trigger sounds was irritation followed by anger and, eventually, total disgust. (The disorder should not be confused with phonophobia, which refers to fear of loud noises.)
The science behind misophonia is only now being pieced together by researchers — preliminary data suggests a hyperconnectivity between the auditory and limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for generating emotions). There have also been studies that have found a link between misophonia and psychiatric conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder or PTSD.
Which can make it hard for misophobes to get any sympathy — most people just consider them easily annoyed. Dr. Barron H. Lerner, an NYU professor of medicine and population health who also suffers the condition, writes that one of the most difficult aspects is what he calls the “incredulity factor”: “I could not believe that my friends and relatives were not getting as upset at what I considered rude behaviors. They were getting frustrated with me for focusing on sounds they did not really hear.” This very identity crisis can characterize the life of those who have this little-understood condition, as its scientific founders recently noted in a review of what little literature there is on the subject “Most typically, advice offered to those who insisted upon help was to ‘use ear plugs,’ or ‘learn to live with it.’”
A 28-year-old magazine editor living in New York describes what it’s like to live with the condition, which she believes she’s had since birth.
So, I hear that you are sensitive to particular sounds?
Any time I hear someone chewing with their mouth open, I lose my mind. The worst thing for me is the lip-smacking noise people make when they eat. I don’t understand how anyone could make that noise and not understand how disgusting it is. If someone I happen to hate chews loudly, it’s doubly excruciating. I have no ability to “tune things out.” People are always telling to, and I have no idea what they’re talking about.
Have you always been like this?
When I was an infant, we lived in the suburbs and my grandma and aunt came over to watch me. Before she left my mother said, “she has really sensitive hearing. If the fire truck or ambulance goes by, you have to cover her ears or else she’ll start wailing, because it hurts her.” They thought she was crazy, or just overreacting to protect me. But, sure enough, as soon as an ambulance went by, I started screaming bloody murder and didn’t stop for about 20 minutes.
Everyone thought my mom was mad. They were like, there is no way a little baby could have that strong a reaction to sound, you do not have to worry about every little thing.
Was it just ambulances, or were your baby ears sensitive to other sounds?
I was really sensitive to dogs barking and I hated dogs mostly because of the noise. Everyone would be like, ‘Calm down.’ I would just say you don’t understand; this noise is actually killing me. It’s killing me and I feel like I am going mad.
How would you describe it? Is it like the aural equivalent of an ice-cream headache?
When I was little it was loud noises that irritated me. Now it’s certain noises. There’s no pain, but it’s highly irritating. It’s kind of like when you get startled. There is a fear reflex, and then I get angry.
Talk me through a typical reaction to an irritating noise, say lip-smacking …
My first response is to identify the source of the noise. Say, I’m on the subway; I have to find where it’s coming from. Now this wouldn’t usually happen because I wouldn’t usually get caught without my ear buds in. The subway is a very sensitive space for me. If I leave my ear buds at home and I hear something on the subway like a chewing, crunching, or lip-smacking I have to find where it is coming from and then I glare at the person who caused the noise, thinking to myself …
“You are the most disgusting human being in the world?”
Those are my exact thoughts. What is wrong with you? Who raised you? Why do you not have manners? How did you get this far in life without realizing how disgusting you are? It’s really bad. I feel pure rage. I don’t know how else to describe it. I feel indignant, like, how does this person think this is okay? Who raised them? Why did no one tell them that these noises could disturb people around them? Are they going to be doing this forever? Who could possibly date them? Does their significant other chew like this, too? Does their entire family chew like this? Imagine being at dinner with their family, they probably have the worst manners. They are definitely the type of family where conversation ceases as soon as they get their plates, which would make the sound even worse. Maybe I should give them a dirty look so they’ll get the point. Okay, giving them a dirty look now — okay, we made eye contact and they’re still doing it. Was my face not bitchy enough? Should I have raised an eyebrow? Can I move seats? Can I get off this train?
So what do you do to block out irritating sounds?
The only thing that saves me is ear buds. I don’t know what I did before them. If I get caught on a long train ride or plane ride without ear buds, I literally have to plug my ears with my fingers to drown out everyone’s chewing and sniffling (that’s another one for me).
Do you listen to music, or are they noise-canceling earphones?
I listen to music. Sometimes I listen to podcasts, but sometimes there is too much blank space and I can start to hear ambient noises and I have to switch to music.
Will anything do or do you have to listen to a certain genre?
I listen to music all day long. I listen to a lot of hip-hop. I would never listen to an acoustic singer-songwriter. I need something that’s going to fill my head up. I am a huge Kanye fan and his music is lush and has such good production; there is enough going on in his songs to fill the space where an unwanted noise might creep in. But the Yeezus album was a problem for me, because there was a little bit more white space. More staccato. That wouldn’t work, so I would have to go back to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because it felt more noisy. I was at an apartment the other day and I put on Kanye and there was a musician there. She said, “I don’t like this because it doesn’t have any melody. You can’t predict where the sounds will go next.” I like that because repetitive noises are what drive me nuts. That’s why I like hip-hop — because there’s all these different sounds. There are samples, the hook is different to the verse, a new rapper will come in. The songs are not written in a predictable way, they are all over the place and that is good for my brain and the way I hear sounds. Minimal electronic music doesn’t work for me — there’s too much of a pattern.
How annoying was it for you when you were at school, were you overwhelmed by sound?
I went to a Catholic school and there was a no-chewing-gum rule. We were only allowed to eat at lunchtime and if there’s enough white noise around me my sensitivity is okay. So I was fine unless I was, say, in the car with a friend and they were chewing in my ear. But when I got to college there was more of a permissive attitude about chewing and eating in class. That’s when my noise sensitivity became a serious problem. The sounds were coming at times when I needed quiet to focus and hear what the professor was saying. It became totally overwhelming.
Did it mess up your grades?
Exams were a huge problem. If it was quiet and I could hear anything — anyone chewing. I couldn’t concentrate I was so distracted. I’d focus on the sounds and think, You are so disgusting. My classmates were allowed to chew gum in exams for “anxiety.” So of course people were chewing all the time and that was so stressful. I couldn’t use ear buds because people would think I was cheating. I didn’t even ask, I would have sounded like such an asshole. Nobody knows that this is a thing. They just think I am neurotic and that I have no tolerance for humans. I had to seek help.
Who did you talk to? It must have been hard to explain … ?
I went to the health center and told them that I would go into fits of rage in class if someone behind me audibly chewed gum. They sent me straight to the psych department where I ended up getting diagnosed with ADD. I wasn’t gonna turn down Adderall! I’d been buying it from friends anyway to study, so I just said thanks and moved on. It didn’t help with the misophonia. I lost weight and aced my exams, though. I still felt like I was going crazy because I just couldn’t focus. I was so angry and irritated all the time.
Why did they think you had ADD?
They said we are going to give you the ADD test, I was like sock it to me! They handed me a piece of paper and told me to check off all the statements that applied. They are telling me I have ADD and I know that means Adderall, and I love Adderall. That might have skewed me when I was answering but I was truthful, so maybe I do have ADD? I don’t even know if I believe in it. I think a lot of creative-minded people just focus differently. The same way I can’t tune sounds out, there are times when I can’t force myself to focus on things. But if I am working on something that I am into you won’t hear from me again for hours. I don’t know if that’s related, who knows. I think a lot of kids who are diagnosed with ADD may be noise sensitive. When I was little I was constantly talking in class, I couldn’t focus. But if I was born ten years later I feel like my teachers would have definitely tried to medicate me. Their solution to my anger and aggression was speed.
Have you been formally diagnosed with misophonia?
In my experience, most doctors don’t believe in it, so it’s embarrassing to try and get anyone to understand that it’s as an actual problem and not just a case of being irritable. But I also don’t see the point. It’s not like there’s a cure, and I wouldn’t want to mess with my body by taking any kind of medicine for it. I’ve managed with ear buds so well so far. I know how I feel because of this, and I don’t need a doctor to validate it — especially since I’ve had shitty experiences with doctors in the past on this and other issues. Finding out that misophonia is a thing that exists with a medical definition was enough for me. I know how I feel, and, like I said before, there’s nothing they can do about it.
Do you have a theory about what’s going on in your brain or your sensory system that causes noises to impact you like this?
I read that misophonia is a tic in your “fight-or-flight” response. Think about the way you react when you feel a mosquito biting you. You need to make it stop right away. Your instinct is to slap the mosquito. Jump up. Move away. That’s how it feels — I either need to get the hell away from the sound, or somehow make it stop. I either want to run away or punch the person making the sound.
What else are you sensitive to? Do certain voices annoy you?
There are some podcasts that I can’t listen to — I pay more attention to the way someone speaks than what they are saying, so I miss all the content. Some accents that really get me. Midwestern accents drive me crazy. The really posh British accent bothers me, but that might just be because I’m a reverse classist. I don’t believe that’s how they talk. No, really. I am convinced they are putting it on. I like a Cockney accent; my boyfriend is from Glasgow and I really like the way he speaks. I like your accent — New Zealand or Australian accents are okay with me. I don’t like Southern accents.
Is there any upside — anything you pick up on that other people don’t?
I’m really good at accents. I can imitate an accent very quickly. I am also good with languages. My French and Spanish teachers would always be very impressed.
I’ll be out sitting in a restaurant and I will notice every little detail; then, when I tell my friends they think I’m crazy. But for a journalist, it’s obviously a great trait to have.
What about cultural differences? Are you a sound bigot?
As someone with sensitive hearing, I’ve noticed that some cultures tend to have louder chewers than others and that makes me feel racist.
I notice that lot of Asian cultures are loud eaters, and I know that’s polite in some cultures to slurp and smack your lip, but I can’t go out to dinner in Koreatown. I grew up in New Jersey where there’s a strong Italian community. I get the impression that it’s culturally acceptable for Italians to eat loudly. And there’s a class element to it as well, which makes it extra tough.
What about kids, can you even be around them?
Funnily enough, yes. And I think it’s because I can tell myself that they really can’t help it. They have an excuse for not knowing any better. I don’t know why that makes a difference, but it does. And also they are smaller, so it’s not as imposing. There’s less force.
Do you find that some people really do dominate physical space?
You know what gets me? Big people. And I don’t necessarily mean that they are taller or weigh more, but they take up more space. They have big personalities, never shut up, clumsy movement, mouth breathing, etc., just making their presence known. The people tend to eat loudly. This could just be my own bias against annoying people, though.
I had a roommate who had a boyfriend who was the loudest eater I have ever met in my life. When he was in a room you knew he was in the room. He didn’t stop talking. He had a very loud voice. He would sprawl himself out on the couch. In every possible way he was unaware of the comfort of the people around him.
So it’s kind of gendered, too?
Yes, definitely, especially because boys aren’t traditionally encouraged to be aware of the sounds that come out of their body. They aren’t as aware as girls are of not grossing someone out or being quiet. They are taught to sprawl out wherever they want. Make as much noise. Take up all the space.
I could never date a guy who chewed loudly. Luckily that’s never come up. I have no idea how, but I always end up interested in quiet chewers. It’s so weird. There has never been a time when a guy I was attracted to ended up being a loud chewer.
You work in an office. Is that challenging?
Office situations are hard, for obvious reasons. Nobody goes out to eat for lunch. They all stay at their desks. And that’s misery for me, because I always end up next to loud eaters. One thing that is really challenging is that they give out free cereal. The cereal has been very difficult for me to negotiate. No matter where I go, someone will come up next to me or behind me with a bowl of cereal clanking against the side of the bowl and chewing so loud and it makes me insane.
Did you ever fall out with anyone because you scolded them for being rude?
I realized very quickly that people didn’t want to hear it. That interests me because if someone told me that I was grossing them out I would be mortified, and then I would stop doing whatever it was that disgusted them. But people get very offended by it.
Do people ever say you’re just irritable, or too uptight?
Yes, and I really did struggle with that for a long time. I’d think, what if I am just a bitch? What if this is who I am? What if I am just a very intolerant person? I am so irritable. I’d think, what if I just hate everyone? I have such a short fuse and I don’t understand what’s wrong with me. I didn’t want to be like this anymore, I wanted to sit next to my friends who chew loudly and not worry about it. People don’t get it. Some people think that it’s cute and quirky. It is not. Last time I was home, Mom was eating; she was running the fork along her teeth — it was fingernails on a blackboard. Each time she ate a chip she would bite down on it with her mouth open and it made the crunch so loud. I was begging her to stop and she was giggling. I wasn’t laughing. It was not cute. Then she would continue to do it and laugh like a naughty kid.
How have you modified your behavior at all over the years in response to that kind of reaction?
I would excuse myself. I would say like, “Oh, you know I’m kind of a bitch. Sorry. I’m uptight. Sorry.” I would say it all the time. I gradually realized I could separate it from my personality. Also, a few years ago I feel like it got some attention in the media. There were a few things in these fringe-y websites where I thought, Huh, maybe this is a thing. Then the Times covered it and I learned that it was an actual problem that other people have. And that really helped. I am sure that there are other traits that go hand in hand with it but at that point I stopped blaming myself.
Does it limit your social life? Do you eat out, or go to the movies?
I will usually wait for the opening rush to have died down on a movie because I don’t want to hear the noises. If the theater is packed then there will definitely be someone chewing behind me. There may be someone in front breathing heavily. But if I wait a few weeks it will be less full and there will be seats that I can move to if I am stuck next to someone loud. Planes are an absolute nightmare. I use an extra battery to charge my phone. I can’t let my phone die on public transport. So I always have to have backup batteries, and a charger. The good thing about eating out in New York is that most restaurants are so noisy that it blocks out the chewing sounds. I recently had to go to a silent dinner for work — that was one of the hardest things that I have ever done.
A silent dinner?
Yeah, it was in fucking Bushwick, I mean of course it was. A fucking silent vegan yoga dinner, how could it not be irritating? I could hear everything. The fork hitting the plate. The sound of someone mashing food and swallowing. Lips smacking. Every single annoying eating-sound amplified times ten. It was hell.
How do you deal with sleeping next to someone?
Luckily, I have never dated a snorer. I go for people who are quiet, with good manners. I did once date someone who had a mother who chewed with her mouth open. It made it so hard because I had to deal with it. You can’t get annoyed with your boyfriend’s mom. That’s not allowed. She talked about it, too! She would say “Oh, I have to eat with my mouth open because I can’t breathe through my nose.” And it would make me feel so fucking sick. I would focus in on what she was chewing and think about how long she was chewing. Does everyone else breathe through their nose when they are eating? I don’t think so … I never told my boyfriend about it because if I told him the truth all I could say is, your mom repulses me.”
What happens when you go somewhere out of the city, where there’s less white noise?
Nights can be very hard. I have trouble falling asleep. It’s not too bad if I have some white noise. But where I live downtown is unbelievably loud. Moving there was not my best plan. But it’s okay because I have an air conditioner and ear buds. Wherever I go I steal them. I go through a pair a week — my room is covered in earbud confetti.
My parents live on the Jersey shore. When I stay there in winter it’s deadly silent, so that means every noise I hear is amplified. There’s a bridge about a half mile away and I can hear each and every car going over it when I am laying in bed trying to sleep.
But back in the city, just this afternoon, a woman living in the apartment below me went crazy. I could hear everything. I knew her name, the name of the social worker, the fact that she had been off her Lexapro. I got every little detail. I could hear everything. I can’t not hear.