For all the beautiful music out there, life comes at us with a barrage of sounds we’d rather not hear.
Many offend our ears simply because they’re loud, like cars honking or jackhammers drilling.
Then, there are noises that can drive you nuts without raising the decibel level very much. Think someone loudly chewing their meal, smacking their gum or slurping their coffee.
Some people have such a strong negative reaction to everyday sounds that it triggers an uncontrollable physical response — including panic or rage — in a condition known as misophonia.
So what’s going on here? Experts say that for people who react that strongly, the noises seem to go to the wrong place in the brain.
“When you hear sounds, everyone thinks the ears are so important. That’s the first part, but all the things that we need for hearing are occurring in the brain,” Aage Møller, professor of cognition and neuroscience at The University of Texas at Dallas, told TODAY.
“Different kinds of sounds are sent to different places. So there’s a sorting mechanism… in misophonia, the sound seems to go to a place where it is not only unpleasant, but gives almost fight and defense reactions.”
Misophonia sufferers seem to be particularly bothered by chewing sounds, Møller noted. They often can’t be around others who are eating, so sitting down to a meal with their families or going to a restaurant can be a struggle.
Still, even people without such extreme sound sensitivity usually find loud chewing and slurping insufferable, as evidenced in this tweet by Sarah Silverman:
And lots of us can’t stand to hear someone clipping their nails or loudly sniffing.
“Things that, in sound, remind us of a bodily function of someone else is not what you want to [hear],” said TODAY contributor and psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz.
“The feeling of being subsumed by somebody else’s bodily fluids and bodily process. It’s a minor version of, ‘Your germs are getting on me.’”
If you’re hyper aware of noises, it may be that you’re just biologically more sensitive to that sensory input, Saltz noted.
Or it may have more to do with an obsessive compulsive tendency that gives you anxiety about someone being in your space, she added. So if you’re sitting next to somebody who’s chewing, it feels like particles of food might end up on you.
For some people, it’s all about manners and having a strong reaction to behavior they consider rude and uncouth, Saltz said.
Certain noises also grab our attention on an emotional level. One study found listening to a child whine is more distracting than many other annoying sounds.
Hearing a baby cry is disturbing, too, because it’s like being stuck with a pin that says, “Help me! Help me!” Saltz said.
How to cope
How do you tune out the noise on planes and other public places? Most people go about it the wrong way, she noted.
“We tend to say, ‘That is really bugging me’ and then, if anything, focus on it the most,” Saltz said.
“Trying to say, ‘I won’t focus on it, I will shut it out’ doesn’t work either because the more you struggle to not think about something, the more you actually think about it.”
The trick is to let the temporary annoyance exist, along with whatever else is going on in your world, Saltz said. She compared it to looking at a beautiful painting that also contains an accidental splotch of black.
“Take in the whole and allow the negative thing to be there. Say things to yourself like, ‘It’s not a pleasure, but I’ll manage it. I’ll tolerate it,’ which allows it to recede,” Saltz advised.
And if you’re about to spend lots of time in close proximity to others — think flying — don’t forget the ear plugs.