Synesthesia of the Day — Misophonia
For the first time in a long time I don’t feel as if I’m up to my elbows in work. It seems like after I finish writing a novel is when I get really busy. It has to be prepared for publication, then it has to be published, and there’s a lot to that for someone who does it himself. Then there’s the recording, which took a month for The Plainsrunner, and preparing that for release. So I’ve been busy and it’s letting up, and now I find myself looking around for anything I’ve missed. Wracking my brain in case there was some little detail I’ve left out. I guess I’ve gotten used to being busy, and it’s taking a while to slow down. As I do slow down, though, I realize that I now have time for a blog post that isn’t about the book. Here’s one about synesthesia.
In a previous post — Most Unpleasant Sounds — we looked at Dr Sukhbinder Kumar of Newcastle University and a small study where he came up with a list of the ten most unpleasant sounds, as selected by volunteers. The list would seem reasonable to most normal people, although I’m sure most people could easily alter it, either with the sounds themselves or the order of their unpleasantness.
It turns out that Dr Kumar works with people for whom unpleasant sounds go far beyond any list that normal people might make. The list would be much longer and the reaction to the sounds would go beyond unpleasantness or discomfort. For the people suffering with misophonia, some sounds can get down to their primordial emotions, from uneasy fear to terror. Mere sounds can evoke a classic fight-or-flight response. Unless they can find a way to insulate themselves from the sounds, they could live their whole day in a state of extreme stress.
It’s easy to dismiss the complaints of people with misophonia. Why should I have to worry about every little sound I make just because somebody’s a little sensitive. Tiny little sounds that everyone makes unconsciously every day. The popping or smacking of lips. Sniffing. Even the way we breathe. And that’s just few from one small part of the body. There are a lot of triggers — largely things we could control if we tried — and we would have to be on our guard all day long to avoid bothering anyone with misophonia. Can’t they just suck it up and deal with it?
No, they can’t. With therapy they can learn how to deal with it better, but there’s no cure. Unlike other forms of synesthesia, which can be pleasant, or at least interesting, misophonia seems to be unrelentengly bad. Sufferers soon give up trying to get the rest of us to give them a break, and look for ways to live with it. Typically that means cutting themselves off from people. Working from home. Staying single. Since the bad sounds are largely made by people, who could avoid making them — that’s an important part of it, that it’s not just any sounds, but sounds that people make when they don’t have to — the most effective course is to avoid people.
Next time you hear someone drag their fingernails across a blackboard, and you recoil, your skin crawling, try to imagine if you also felt primeval fear, your thighs quivering in preparation for running away. Then try to imagine feeling that way if someone snapped their fingers or sucked their teeth. Misophonia — hatred of sound — might be the worst form of synesthesia.
Read this BBC article about Margot, and how she lives with misophonia.