Lunch at the Marriott hotel in the southwestern US city of Mesa was a buffet of overcooked chicken and soggy enchiladas. I’d recently met a friendly man with a shaved head and a pale oblong face named Paul Tabachneck, so we sat down together at a table to eat. Tabachneck ate carefully, eyes trained on his plate or a spot on the beige walls. But his conversation was lively – he talked about busking as a guitarist in the New York subway while trying to achieve his dream of being a professional musician.

After about ten minutes, I scraped my knife against my plate while cutting my chicken. Tabachneck whipped his head around to look at me, his eyes suddenly cold.

“Did you have to do that?” he snapped. “And did you know that your jaw pops when you eat?”

We’re all annoyed by annoying sounds: fingernails on chalkboards, car alarms, Fran Drescher’s nasal tones. But for some people, particular sounds send them into an unbearable frenzy. There’s the Atlanta journalist who wanted to reach across the table to strangle his loudly chewing father; the Arizona computer scientist who hated the sound of knives so much that his girlfriend developed a phobia too; the Oregon housewife who moved her family members out of her home so she wouldn’t have to listen to them.

Psychologists call them misophones – people with an acute reaction to specific, usually low-volume sounds. But because the condition is poorly understood, they struggle to convince others that their problem isn’t a form of neuroticism. In this hotel, where one of the first scientific conferences on misophonia was being held, the afflicted finally met others of their kind and shared their tales of aural agony. You just had to be very, very careful with your cutlery.

When Tabachneck was 14, he and his father were watching a movie at home in Pittsburgh. His dad started pushing his ice-cream into a puddle, clinking his spoon against the bowl.

Up to that point, Tabachneck’s relationship with sound was normal. He loved music and enjoyed hearing people laugh; he found sirens somewhat grating. But this clinking was different – it provoked a combination of anxiety and nearly physical agitation. It was the beginning of a lifetime of noise-related misery.

Tabachneck went to college to study computer science but dropped out because the clicking in the computer labs made him so tense. He took a job in customer service and found he had a knack for it. But some colleagues made him crazy. One man spat chewing tobacco, another talked with his mouth full, and a third brought in an old keyboard because he liked the sound of the keys.

Tabachneck’s personal relationships also suffered. He loved one girlfriend enough to consider marrying her, but he had to eat in a separate room to avoid hearing her chew. A later romance ended because the woman smacked her chewing gum.

He’s now dating someone who occasionally cracks her joints. “Most people can’t be in a relationship with a misophone,” he says, “because they don’t want to feel guilty for eating cereal in a porcelain bowl.”

After hearing problems were ruled out – Tabachneck’s only abnormality was perfect pitch – his issues were thought to be psychological. Over the years, doctors gave him different diagnoses and medications. Nothing made sense until an audiologist told Tabachneck in 2010 that he seemed to be a textbook case of an emerging disorder called misophonia.

In 1997, Oregon audiologist Marsha Johnson met a girl who couldn’t bear the noise her father made when he chewed his nails. Other cases trickled in, and she talked to fellow audiologists who had also observed the condition. Johnson has become an advocate for the disorder, creating an online forum and helping to organise the Arizona conference.

She and other experts view misophonia as an ‘old brain’ problem, probably located in the part of the cortex that processes emotion.

“When people hear these sounds, they react with intense emotion,” she says. “It isn’t a higher cognitive function where you’re going, ‘I don’t like white chocolate lattes.’ This is like a wasp sting – you slap, jump, run, and scream.”

It’s impossible to know how many sufferers there are. Of the 4000 misophones who post on the forum, half a dozen were at the Marriott. Among them, Tabachneck was a sort of star. His song ‘Misophone’ had circulated, and Scott, an engineer, approached him at a break. They talked triggers.

“Burping has always bothered me,” Tabachneck told him. “And my girlfriend does this thing where she cracks her neck, and you snap back like that.” He imitated the manoeuvre.

“There’s a woman here who does that,” said Scott. “There’s also where you hear something that sounds like somebody cracking knuckles, and all of a sudden, you’re hypervigilant.”

“You’re looking to find who cracked their knuckles,” said Tabachneck, nodding. “Always looking. It never ends.”

Misophonia is not included in the DSM-5, the so-called bible of psychiatric diagnoses – it’s too recently observed, for one thing. But whether misophonia is a mental disorder or not doesn’t really matter for people such as Tabachneck, who experience life-altering discomfort daily. At the conference, he performed ‘Misophone’. A crowd gathered to talk to him afterwards. As I took notes behind him, I absentmindedly sucked on a peppermint, the sound barely registering above the chit-chat. Tabachneck wheeled around, his face shifting from warmth to disgust. “What are you doing? Didn’t we talk about this?” he yelled at me.

Johnson says misophones will try anything for relief. “You could say, ‘I’ll hit you on the head with a guitar, and it will cure you,’ and you’d have a hundred people lined up to pay you $5000 to hit them on the head.”

She’s testing an approach that uses sound-generating equipment to weaken an individual’s connection between certain sounds and the autonomous nervous system – paired with cognitive therapy.

Desperate misophones often try to drown out irritating sounds with an ocean of ambient noise. Some work as Zumba instructors or in bowling alleys; others use iPods, fans and headsets that play white noise, lower-frequency pink noise and lower again brown noise.

Following the conference, Tabachneck conducted his own experiment: he went to a film. At a prior outing, one couple was eating popcorn so loudly, it seemed like a deliberate provocation.

This time, advised by one of his new misophonic buddies, Tabachneck requested a headset for the hearing impaired and found a seat in the back of the theatre. With the headset’s padding, the popcorn-chomping sounds were dampened, disappearing as the film filled his ears. He relaxed.

“Towards the end,” he says, “I actually removed the headphones to hear the audience’s reaction to the last few scenes. And it was totally worth it.”

Colours of Noise

Different colours of noise are used to drown out irritating sounds:
White noise has a flat power spectrum. It sounds like static.
Pink noise has a spectrum inversely proportional to its frequency.
It sounds like a rain shower.
Brown noise has a spectrum inversely proportional to the square of its frequency. It sounds like a distant waterfall.

Courtesy of Charles Bethea. © 2013 by Charles Bethea.

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