Misophonia misery: When is it right and rational to ask for quiet?

by Margo White / 03 March, 2018

If you’re sensitive to other people’s noises, summer can be really annoying.

By the time you read this, summer will have been - and possibly gone, but I’m writing this in late November when it has yet to turn up, and I’m already worrying about the sounds of summer.

By the time summer has arrived, the neighbours in the house behind the fence at the back will have inflated the pool, and the children will be in it, screaming with delight or in fury, or because they just love the feeling and sound of their own screaming. 

People tend to disagree at which point shrieking becomes screaming, but you know it when you hear it. In previous summers, I’ve taken to bed to get away from it, with earplugs and towels wrapped like a bandage around my head. Well, you can’t exactly ask the neighbours to tell their children to stop having so much fun, can you?

This is what happens in the suburbs when you live too close to loud people. You get scared of summer, when the doors and windows will be open, parties will be held, people will be out on their decks playing music you would never listen to voluntarily, and the neighbour’s children will be in the pool.

The beaches don’t offer the respite they once did, either, with all those small, portable speakers. So you go to the beach for a bit of peace and quiet and find yourself surrounded by competing boom-boxes. I don’t get this. It seems rude. You wouldn’t normally sit yourself down in the middle of someone else’s picnic, and it seems to me that imposing your music on others at the beach could – should! – be seen as a similar form of trespass.

There was a story that hit the headlines in Auckland recently about a walking group of eight pensioners in their 70s – four men and four women – who were catching the bus home to West Auckland after a fun day out on Waiheke Island.

According to the newspaper article, soon after the group got on the bus, the driver pulled over and told them, “You’re all acting like animals and it sounds like a fish market.” He asked them to keep quiet, and so they “kept quiet, quiet like little mice”, according to one of the group. But then the bus got going and they started talking again.

The bus driver pulled over, got off the bus, paced around outside, got back on the bus and told the group to get off. The pensioners in question looked, in the photograph, like nice, decent people, definitely not the sort who’d make a racket.

I was appalled, but when I mentioned this story to a friend he laughed and said he thinks he may have encountered that walking group. They might not have been the same people, only they wore the same blue shirts and were in their 70s. “And let’s say,” my friend said, “school kids aren’t the only ones who can make a racket on public transport.” 

The bus driver’s response was extreme, however, and the bus company apologised to the walking group and sent their driver on a “customer service course”.

You can’t kick pensioners off a bus! Then you remember how irritated you get by the noises other people make on public transport, like yelling into their phones about, say, how to market muesli for the wellness industry. Which is what I was obliged to listen to the other day, as a woman talked loudly on her mobile as if she was practising for a conference presentation. About muesli.

You think about what bus drivers have to put up with, day after day, all day long, and you start to feel sorry for that West Auckland driver.

When is it right and rational to ask for quiet? Hardly ever. We have some legislative parameters around very loud noises, such as construction work, and sounds which by some (limited) consensus can be considered annoying, such as dogs that bark too much. The chitter-chat of a walking group on the bus, however, or the screaming kids in the pool next door do not rank highly on the noise pollution scale. They’re the noises of life; we’re supposed to live with them.

There is a condition called misophonia, sometimes known as “select sound sensitivity syndrome”, which has got a lot of attention in recent years. It was only identified and named in 2000, and there’s still some debate about whether it really constitutes a disorder. Basically, it’s an intolerance of sounds that aren’t particularly loud – typically another person eating, swallowing, smacking their lips, breathing through their mouth, sniffing and sneezing and so on – causing otherwise perfectly normal people to fly into a rage or have a nervous breakdown.

Some scientists have put this down to a hyperactive interaction between the auditory cortex, which processes sound, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes negative emotions. Or, according to a recent study by neuroscientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, people with misophonia have an abnormal connection between the frontal lobe and the anterior insular cortex (AIC), the area of the brain involved in processing emotions and integrating information from the outside world. 

The consequences can be extreme. “The noise of my family eating forced me to retreat to my own bedroom for meals,” one sufferer told the neuroscientists at Newcastle. “I can only describe it as a feeling of wanting to punch people in the face when I heard the noise of them eating.” 

I’m yet to be convinced that going into a rage at the sound of other people eating constitutes a psychiatric or neurological disorder, but if there’s such a thing as misophonia, I’m probably on the spectrum. In my ideal world, cinemas would ban the eating of popcorn. And workplaces would prohibit people at the desk beside you munching their apple or slurping their soup. I’m probably intolerant. Or maybe I have a hyperactive anterior insular cortex and a disorder. Or maybe people could just learn to close their mouth when they’re eating.

When it comes to the sound of little children screaming, it could be my brain registering distress signals, because my brain has evolved to do that. We didn’t evolve at a time when children splashed around in an inflatable pool all day, screaming for fun. Children wouldn’t have cried wolf like that back on the savannah. They would have saved their screams for when a sabre-toothed cat or giant eagle came to take them away and eat them.

So even in the 21st century, at some subconscious level our brains can register a child’s screams of pleasure as a distress signal. We just haven’t evolved to put up with hearing little kids screaming for fun. This is what you tell yourself anyway, that you’re simply attuned to those ancient environmental cues, rather than a middle-aged misanthrope who just can’t stand the sound of the neighbour’s children.     

This was published in the January 2018 issue of North & South.



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