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Why Does The Sound of Chewing Make Some People Panic?

Evening Edition

Aired 8/21/13 on KPBS News.

For some people, repetitive noises like gum-chewing and foot-tapping are much more than annoying. They can evoke feelings of uncontrollable panic and rage, and researchers have only just begun to study what's causing this unusual condition.

Gum-chewing, foot-tapping, loud typing. Good luck finding anyone who enjoys these sounds.

But for some people, these kinds of repetitive noises are much more than annoying. They can evoke feelings of uncontrollable panic and rage, and researchers have only just begun to study what's causing this unusual (and as-of-yet unrecognized) condition.

Alesia Poynter is married to a pastor. Some might "tsk-tsk" the sight of a pastor's wife walking out in the middle of church, but sometimes she just has to.

"It can even be someone praying," she said. "The sound of their 'sssss' — you know, the 's' — will make me crazy."

On a recent flight, just the sight of attendants passing out crunchy snacks was enough to reduce Alesia Poynter to tears.

Poynter has something called misophonia, which literally means the "hatred of sound." It's not well understood at this point, but Poynter knows that if she hears certain trigger noises, she'll become extremely agitated.

"I just get really panicked, upset," she said. "I start looking at people, giving them dirty looks. I now wear headphones, or I just have to leave."

People with misophonia are each set off by different sounds, but most of them say they can't stand chewing. That's why when Poynter pictures dinnertime in her Glendora household, she usually sees one empty chair at the table.

"It looks like me taking my food and eating in my room, pretty much," she said.

Poynter's misophonia follows her everywhere, from home to the office to vacations, but she didn't even know what term to use for her problem until a few years ago. That's because misophonia is still such a new concept, even people who have it might not know about it.

"In terms of empirical research that has been conducted, I only know of one other study that was published earlier this year," said Miren Edelstein, a doctoral student in psychology at UC San Diego. In a paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, she and her colleagues confirmed that, yes, misophonia is very much real. And it's a lot worse than simple annoyance at rude noises.

The researchers brought a small group of people into the lab for an experiment. Some of them had misophonia; some didn't. Edelstein hooked each of them up to a machine that measures the body's fight-or-flight response. Then she showed them some videos.

Miren Edelstein and her colleagues at UC San Diego are some of the first researchers to study what might be causing misophonia.

In these videos, people aggressively chew apples, furiously click pens and munch on potato chips. The charts taken from people with misophonia explain a lot. The lines indicating fight-or-flight response look flat and calm at first, but when the videos kick in, they shoot right up.

"This would be an example of a pretty large response," Edelstein said.

Why do we see this response in people who say they have misophonia but not in typical individuals? Put another way, what's the underlying cause of this condition? It's still way too early to tell, but Edelstein and her colleagues have a hypothesis.

"It could be due to an enhanced connectivity between the auditory cortex of the brain—where sounds are processed—and the limbic system, basically where your body's emotional and fight-or-flight response are processed," Edelstein explains.

It's a hunch based on earlier research performed in V.S. Ramachandran's lab at UC San Diego—research on an altogether different condition called synesthesia.

Synesthesia causes people to conflate certain perceptions with other unrelated perceptions. So for instance, synesthetes might experience the number three in terms of the color red. Or they might touch a sheet of sandpaper and automatically start to feel guilty.

People with this condition tend to have an unusually high number of neural connections between certain parts of their brains. Maybe people with misophonia also have more connections, in this case linking the sound-associated part of their brain to the primal emotion-associated region.

The key word here is "maybe." It's going to take lots of brain scanning before we can say anything even remotely conclusive about misophonia, but for those living with it, the fact that scientists are looking into their condition at all is encouraging.

"Now, disorders and things like bipolar and [obsessive compulsive disorder] are just common talk," Poynter said. "Maybe one day misophonia will be understood like that, and not just this weird quirky thing that some of us say we have."

Online support groups have played a major role in connecting misophones around the world. Heidi Salerno says after she Googled misophonia, "I found my people."

Misophonia is not currently recognized in the DSM, the book psychiatrists use to diagnose mental disorders, and that means there are no official treatments sanctioned by the American Psychiatric Association.

But many people suffering from misophonia have found their own ways of mitigating their condition. One of them is San Diego lawyer Heidi Salerno. She turned to a somewhat controversial yet increasingly popular and often effective therapy called 'neurofeedback.'

It essentially trains people to modulate the electrical activity in their brains. Salerno said neurofeedback helped her just about beat misophonia.

"Things just stopped bothering me," she said, "until almost all but one of my triggers was gone."

But neurofeedback doesn't work for everyone. And it's an expensive therapy that most health insurance plans don't cover.

Until researchers find a better way to treat the condition, people with misophonia say public awareness would make their lives a little easier. Then at least they wouldn't have to spend so much time explaining why people really need to stop tapping their feet and snapping their gum.

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Avatar for user 'AGAL12'

AGAL12 | August 21, 2013 at 5:07 p.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

Unfortunately, this is another example of amateur science reporting. The reporter has given us an intriguing account of people who have an unusual syndrome: misophonia. However, the reporter fails to take a serious look at what is passing for science. Miren Edelstein states that the neurological cause for misophonia might be "enhanced connectivity between the auditory cortex of the brain—where sounds are processed—and the limbic system..." However, she admits that there is no research to support this theory.

In fact, she says the theory is really just a hunch by V.S Ramachandran. For those who remember something about Ramachandran's famous hunches, he is the brain scientist who recently (2011) claimed that there are men in Lamaze classes who exhibit false pregnancies because their mirror neuron systems are over producing empathy hormones. Good science reporting is about more than hunches.

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Avatar for user 'JeLo'

JeLo | August 22, 2013 at 8:59 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

I hope the author edits to clarify, because the condition is not only about repetitive noises. One crunch of a single chip sends me over the edge and causes me physical pain. The bristles of a toothbrush or scrub brush being brushed, even lightly, kills my ears. In the first few sentences, saying "These kinds of repetitive noises..." is incredibly misleading.

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Avatar for user 'Bobfek'

Bobfek | August 22, 2013 at 10:36 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

JeLo, yep spot on. Doesn't have to be repetitive. People also need to distnguish between the misconception that this is somehow related to Hyperachusis, which is something totally different.

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Avatar for user 'Adah'

Adah | August 22, 2013 at 6:52 p.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

Dr. Ramachandran is not perfect: no one is. We are extremely fortunate that he has taken an interest in this disorder. He has the notoriety to help us get more attention, and he has experience with and insight into synaesthesia to make a very important theoretical link into what's happening during a trigger.
We need research. Lots of it.
I am grateful to any professional medical person who does not minimize, does not try to tell me that I am wrong, laugh at me, and my favorite: tell me that I "need to listen to nature sounds".

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Avatar for user 'alesiapoynter'

alesiapoynter | August 22, 2013 at 11 p.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

I am so happy to help get the word out there in the hope of helping all of the thousands of sufferers out there such as myself. I am thankful that students, doctors and reporters and taking the time and doing the work that it will take to bring better understanding to this little known disorder. I was interviewed for at least an hour and they aired some very small clips....which I am thankful for. But I must say, this issue goes far deeper than just chewing sounds. My top all time triggers are gum, typing , leaf blowers and the sound of bass coming from a neighbors house or car, etc. I will not step foot near a movie theatre!! Many of us have different triggers....there is so much more information and ground breaking evidence that is going to help generations for years to come. I am encouraged that many misophonics have had great success with neurofeedback. I hope to try this method of treatment in the near future. I totally agree with Adah....we are extremely fortunate for those that have taken an interest and will help this bring more attention to misophonia!!

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Avatar for user 'AGAL12'

AGAL12 | August 23, 2013 at 10:09 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

Judith Krauthamer has just published a book on misophonia that may be a valuable resource: Sound-Rage. It is available through Amazon. Her book addresses both the neurobiology of the condition and the therapies that are available. The researchers at UCSD do not seem to be aware of the considerable research that has been done in this area.

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Avatar for user 'donniealways'

donniealways | August 23, 2013 at 1:43 p.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

i just want to add, there are visuals along with the sounds, the sight of 'any'one chewing, snapping or blowing bubbles with gum sends me into a rage, i have to get away, even 'seeing' the potato chip bag come out, knowing what's coming, i 'shuddered' at the sounds and sights on the video, that machine would have 'blown up' if i was hooked up to it. mine started at age 10 and i'm 59 and i have so many triggers now, i could not list them all but including, people who eat open mouthed, certain voices, accents that sound fake on commercials, listening to side affects of medications on commercials, that go on forever, seeing/hearing someone brush their teeth (stay in the bathroom with the door closed) certain words, phrases, and one of the worst is, hearing/feeling bass, in my apt. i have kicked holes in 2 doors of my doors, from the rage of not being able to make it stop. i wear earplugs at home, day and night, unless i'm watching t.v. i sleep with earplugs and a small fan next to my bed, to drown out any other sound that may come in. this has affected my social life to the point, i just say, 'no thanks' when invited anyplace. i hope someone can figure it out and thanks alesia, adah, heidi and anyone else who has the courage to do these videos. i would volunteer to have my reactions measured.

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Avatar for user 'alesiapoynter'

alesiapoynter | August 24, 2013 at 9:33 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

I agree Donnie with the visuals. Even if I have headphones or earplugs in, the visuals will kill me. I was on a plane recently and when the attendants started handing out bags of chips to everyone I went into a panic and crying attack at just the sight of it all. I cannot stand to watch someone chewing makes me miserable and I can't stop looking as if it's a bad car accident. When someone is shaking their legs I get freaked. The list goes on and on and on.....

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