By Alex Fradera
Research in clinical settings shows that some people with mental health problems experience extreme distress when hearing non-speech vocal sounds, like coughs and chewing noises, a phenomenon called “misophonia”. Now research from Amanda Seaborne at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Logan Fiorella at the University of Georgia, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, suggests that this issue exists in the broader population, and that people sensitive to these sounds perform poorly in their presence.
Seventy-two undergraduates sat in a cubicle and read a technical text about migraines for six minutes, before reporting what they remembered, answering questions on the text, and finally completing a questionnaire about their misophonia sensitivity (they rated how distressing they found sounds like “rustling papers, sneezing, chewing gum, tapping, eating crunchy foods, and heavy breathing”). For half the participants, a nearby cubicle contained a confederate working for the researchers who chewed gum loudly throughout the experiment. Participants in this condition who scored higher on the misophonia questionnaire performed worse at the comprehension measures than lower scorers.
Interestingly, the reverse pattern was found for the participants in the quiet control condition, with the more sound-sensitive students performing slightly better – perhaps because these conditions were the ones in which they naturally thrive. So misophonia seems to have an impact in non-clinical contexts (none of the rating scores reached clinical levels of sensitivity), although we can’t say whether its origin is in a subtle neurological difference or a psychological preoccupation. But it’s a good reminder that by honouring the expectations in designated quiet spaces, we may be helping others more than we know.