How would you feel if someone snapped their fingers and removed your misophonia?
I’m talking about ALL traces of it. The past, the present, the future. Erased from your childhood… no longer a feature in your day-to-day life… and a tomorrow that would be, well, trigger-free. Would it feel like a great weight had been lifted? Like you could finally relax and lead a ‘normal’, happy life?
This might seem like a strange question. At first pass the answer for most of us would be a resounding “YES! Get rid of the misophonia at all costs”, right?
But here’s the thing. If your misophonia was taken away, would it leave behind a completely different, unrecognisable you?
To what extent does your misophonia make you ‘you’?
When we talk about misophonia we tend to focus on sound triggers and negative emotions
The intense feelings that consume us when we hear a trigger sound describe just ONE part of our misophonia, the part that we directly perceive in the heat of the moment. The frustration, the anger, the panic, the guilt.
The problem is this narrative seems to frame much of our discussion about misophonia.
With no other context, it suggests that misophonia is entirely defined by negative emotions and traits and that therefore everything to do with misophonia must be bad.
These negative loops dominate the surrounding media and research but they do something much worse than that… They effect the mindsets of the most important people in all of this, us. They reinforce a set of relentlessly negative internal narratives: “There’s something wrong with me… there’s something wrong with other people… misophonia is bad… I’m bad… life is bad… I can’t cope with this…”
But here’s the thing. These negative thoughts and concepts are based on a very limited understanding of our disorder (a disorder which, remember, didn’t have a name until very recently).
To try to make sense of all this, in this article we’re going to look at exactly why this is – i.e. “if misophonia is so great, why can I only see the bad stuff?” Then we’re going tilt the looking glass and see if we can uncover any positive sides to misophonia…
Misophonia is about a great deal more than sound sensitivity alone.
As you’ll see, the misophonic brain is wired differently in ways that we are only just starting to uncover.
Before we get to that, let’s start with the why.
Why is it that the dialogue around misophonia seems to focus solely on sound triggers and negative emotions? There’s a reason for this and we can look to neuroscience for answers.
As humans we are hard wired to trust our senses
Our ears, our eyes, our noses, our sense of touch. The brain has a strong preference for that which it perceives directly, ‘in the moment’…
This makes sense in evolutionary terms because it’s efficient.
The sights, sounds, smells and textures that our brains decode help tether us to a world (and reality) with rules and structures that we can readily navigate. It stops us from falling over all the time, it helps us find food, it helps us find a mate and so on.
The brain does this by learning and categorising complex information. That lump over there is a tree… don’t walk into it. That red blur over there is molten lava… don’t fall into it. The problem with this setup is that it doesn’t always work in our favour all of the time, in every scenario.
Different brains have different ways of perceiving, processing, categorising and regulating different sounds, sights, smells and textures. In our case, for example, the misophonic brain takes the sound sensitivity dial and sends it into hyperdrive.
Nonetheless, for the most part, categorising and labelling complex things works well as a survival strategy. It’s an efficient way to identify objects and feelings and concepts quickly. If our brains didn’t make these quick category judgements the world might appear as a featureless (and meaningless) mass of lines, dots, colours and fractals.
Yet the world is also full of invisible truths that we can’t see, hear, smell, feel or touch
There are objective, invisible truths as real as the ground beneath us that we can’t directly perceive via our senses.
Many of these are essential to our comfort, happiness, enlightenment and even survival in some cases. Yet we now take these for granted, thanks to incredible advances in science and human understanding.
Take wavelengths and light. Our eyes and brains are only adapted to perceive (or see) just a fraction of the world’s wavelengths. We only perceive that tiny slither in the diagram below labelled ‘visible light’.
As neuroscientist David Eaglemen points out:
“the wavelengths we’re talking about involve only what we call “visible light”, a spectrum of wavelengths that runs from red to violet. But visible light constitutes only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum – less than one ten-trillionth of it. All the rest of the spectrum – including radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, cell phone conversations, wi-fi, and so on – all of this is flowing through us right now, and we’re completely unaware of it. This is because we don’t have any specialized biological receptors to pick up on these signals.”
Let that sink in for a moment, just one ten-trillionths of what we call ‘reality’.
Even though we can’t see all these other wavelengths we know that they exist because we’ve found ways – in many cases using technology – to uncover and even utilise them.
They might be invisible to the naked eye but they are just as real and just as important. Without them doctors wouldn’t be able to use x-rays to examine our broken bones… we wouldn’t be able to watch TV or listen to the radio… film directors and photographers wouldn’t even exist… solar energy wouldn’t exist… and so on.
Let’s track this back to misophonia for a moment.
We often label misophonia as being about those intense ‘in the moment’ triggers. It’s our equivalent of that slither of visible light in the world’s wavelengths. Triggers are immediate and loud and pushy, like a great, big klaxon call that screams “look at me!” all the time.
But this aspect of misophonia that’s most widely discussed (the sound triggers) is the tiniest slither of what it means to have this unique brain wiring.
It’s like studying a new species for the first time and characterising it solely on the way it ruffles it’s feathers.
This is a big problem, not just with misophonia, but human explorations in science and knowledge as a whole. We tend to make a beeline for the problem solution angle and focus on one aspect (usually the loudest, most obvious or sensational) rather than investigate the nuances or look at the whole.
If the single aspect we happen to focus on is negative – as it is in the case of misophonia – then blimey, that really sets the narrative. It’s hardly surprising that we write off the whole thing as being a one dimensional misery fest.
If we can look beyond that tiny, perceivable slither of sound triggers we’ve come to characterise our disorder by, what else lies waiting to be discovered in our differently wired brains?
Neurological disorders aren’t black and white, they’re multi-faceted
A close friend of mine is profoundly dyslexic.
This wasn’t something that was well understood or taken particularly seriously when he was growing up. Teachers used to accuse him of being “lazy” or “thick”.
One of the main reasons it wasn’t taken seriously was because doctors and neuroscientists knew very little about it at the time.
Teachers, and even dyslexics themselves, often found themselves focussing solely on the negative.
Within the musty walls of old fashioned, regimented classrooms around the world where parrot fashion learning – and the ability to recall facts or spell certain words – was valued over ingenuity and analysis, dyslexics stood out for all the wrong reasons.
They were viewed and categorised for the things that they struggled with, not what they excelled at…
– Challenges with spelling
– Confusion over word order
– Difficulty understanding instruction
– Struggles with reading
Negative, negative, negative.
All of these effectively spell out: “you can’t do this” and “you can’t do that”. Sound familiar? It should do. In our case sound sensitivity is our kryptonite.
As a result of this relentlessly negative narrative, generations of children grew up with a stigma surrounding their ‘disorder’ and their abilities.
Dyslexics were told they were “stupid” or “lazy” by the very people who were supposed to be nurturing their young minds. They compared themselves to the other kids, particularly those who excelled at this narrow form of rote learning, and felt useless, frustrated and vulnerable.
But what do we know about dyslexia today?
Here’s an excerpt from a piece by the astrophysicist Matthew H. Schneps taken from The Scientific American. He happens to have dyslexia:
“one thing is clear: dyslexia is associated with differences in visual abilities, and these differences can be an advantage in many circumstances, such as those that occur in science, technology, engineering and mathematics…
Such differences in sensitivity for causal perception may explain why people like Carole Greider and Baruj Benacerraf have been able to perform Nobel prize-winning science despite lifelong challenges with dyslexia…
Julie Logan of the Cass Business School in London… found that dyslexia is relatively common among business entrepreneurs; people who tend to think differently and see the big picture in thinking creatively about a business…”
Nobel prize winners and world leading entrepreneurs…
Artists, actors and scientists: Carol Greider, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, Jacques Dubochet, Tom Cruise – possibly even Albert Einstein, Leonardo Davinci and Thomas Edison.
It’s a far cry from the “thick” kids who were written off as having a ‘stupidity’ disorder because they had trouble spelling or understanding instructions.
So we now have a new set of positive traits to sit alongside this particular neurological ‘disorder’.
These are traits which any one of us would be thrilled to possess:
– The ability to think differently (outside of tired, constrained norms)
– Sensitivity in casual perception
– Visual sensitivity
– ‘Big picture thinking’ and entrepreneurial flair
So what about my friend, how has his dyslexia defined him? There are so many metrics for happiness and success. He would say that his greatest achievements are his wonderful family (and I’d agree). But he also keeps himself busy in the day-to-day while the kids are at school.
The boy who couldn’t spell owns and runs a very successful media agency in central London, employing over 70 staff. He started from scratch.
What dyslexia and autism can teach us about the positive aspects of misophonia
We’ve talked a little about dyslexia. Let’s turn briefly to another neurological disorder: high functioning autism (or Asperger’s as it’s often referred to).
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. He articulates a wealth of positive traits when it comes to describing the ‘disorder’:
“Adults with Aspergers pursue ideas they believe in without being deterred by what others say. They are not easily swayed by others’ opinions, nor do they give up because someone tries to convince them otherwise…
They are good at recognizing patterns and in classifying things. They are comfortable with order, precision and categorization, which make them successful in following rules, allocating resources and solving problems.
They tend to be sincere, positive and genuine, which make them loyal and dependable friends. Because they don’t mind being alone, they are often willing to engage in solitary work that others avoid, which puts them in the position of making tremendous contributions at work and school.
They are able to comprehend multiple levels of meanings of words and ideas and can form connections that others miss. They are persistent, and when they set their minds to something or make a promise they can usually be trusted to follow through.
Relationships with someone who has Aspergers tends to be free from bias and discrimination based on race, gender, age or other differences. They judge people based on their behavior not the color of their skin, socioeconomic status or political influence. They are not inclined to be bullies, con artists or social manipulators.”
Most of us would kill to have some of those traits. Yes, of course individuals with autism also face many difficult challenges in their lives and we mustn’t underplay that. But can you see how just by tilting the looking glass for a moment and focusing on what individuals with differently wired brains CAN excel in and CAN thrive at, you can change the narrative?
This exercise in looking beyond obvious is vital in both changing the way others perceive people with autism, dyslexia or misophonia and in how we perceive ourselves. It effects a person’s self-esteem, stress levels, happiness and wellbeing.
No-one would dream of telling someone in a wheelchair that they should keep trying to use the stairs just because that’s what ‘everyone else’ does. Yet with invisible, neurological disorders we often do just that. We obsess on trying to get people to focus on what they can’t do, rather than what they CAN do.
So let’s talk about what people with misophonia can do. We’ve talked about dyslexia and autism… where’s our list of superpowers?
A higher propensity for creative genius… increased levels of empathy… an eye for detail?
I should start by saying that misophonia research is still, compared to many other neurological disorders, in its very early stages.
At the time of writing if you type “autism” into Google Scholar it brings up 1.34 million results.
Type in “dyslexia” and it brings up 272,000 results.
A search for “misophonia” gets just 823.
That gives you a sense of the virgin territory we’re entering here and highlights the massive need for lobbying, government funding and research. It also means that the data we have to draw upon, to date, about the positive aspects of misophonia is fairly limited and often speculative. It’s important to put this disclaimer in.
Nevertheless, what follows is an exercise in starting the debate and getting the ball rolling.
There is – without doubt – a rich tapestry behind the veil just waiting to be discovered and we, as a community, have the power to push forward and encourage this discussion.
The good news is that we’re already making progress. One study, led by Darya L. Zabelina from Northwestern University, forms an excellent starting point.
You can read about it here, but here’s a synopsis. Darya and her team found that people with misophonia may have a higher propensity for creative genius, specifically an ability to: “… integrate ideas that are outside of focus of attention, leading to creativity in the real world…”
In an interview with Science Daily, Zabelina says: “If funnelled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety.”
And you don’t have to delve too far into the past to find evidence of creative geniuses within our ranks. The study cites Wagner, Proust and Darwin as individuals who “strongly lamented the distracting nature of noise (Kasof, 1997)” and were almost certainly misophones. Proust so much so that he was famous for lining his bedroom walls with cork and wearing earplugs so that he could work in complete and utter silence.
I recently asked you what your misophonic superpowers are…
In a series of Allergic to Sound bulletins I asked what unique ability or abilities you posses. Specifically abilities you suspect you might not have if you were, to use a horrible word, ‘normal’ and didn’t have misophonia. The things you find easy that others may struggle with. The fields, subject areas or niches you thrive in.
This could be anything from ways of looking at the world, to how you interact with people, see the bigger picture and focus on tasks.
I combined your email responses with all the interview responses I’d received to date in My Miso Story to date for the question: “What is your misophonic superpower?”
In total that left us with 49 respondents. Obviously this is a relatively small, informal poll and should be treated as a bit of fun. But it’s interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless and a starting point.
The first and most popular trait that came through was ‘sensory sensitivity’. A whopping 45% of you reported supersonic hearing, a keen sense of smell, or some other form of sensory sensitivity.
This is a great advantage in areas where you need to notice and appreciate tiny changes in the environment around you. Performers, artists, people who work with animals, air traffic controllers, police and military service men or women and so on could greatly benefit.
But the results I really found fascinating though were the next four.
Again these were unsolicited, and to my knowledge no respondents could have spoken to one another. You can see them here:
A huge proportion of you, 37%, cited ‘empathy’ as being your misophonic superpower. What a fantastic trait.
The obvious skillsets that leap to mind are those of psychologists, therapists, nurses, carers, animals lovers and so on – but it goes much deeper than that. Someone with a high level of empathy will be extremely valued and held in high esteem in almost all walks of life. This is a trait – if properly harnessed – that could take a person anywhere.
The ability to listen, feel, understand, identify with and help others is at the core of the human race’s ability to co-operate, thrive and reach incredible new heights.
Then we have ‘creativity’. 27% of you reported traits such as musical ability, a flair for writing, art and other creative exploits. This tallies with the study we looked at earlier and could point to an innate ability in misophones to see the world in a different way.
I receive dozens of emails from people with misophonia each week and many of them are form people doing amazing things. We seem to have a lot of talented writers, artists and creatives in our midst.
‘Attention to detail’, 22%, and ‘pattern recognition’, 8% were also very popular traits. These are really specific and incredibly valuable abilities that kept popping up. They could pave the way for excellence in all manner of pursuits from art to engineering and science.
The well of misophonic superpowers appears, even from this little survey alone, to be positively overflowing.
You are so much more than your sound triggers, it’s time to rewrite the narrative
When we label something like misophonia (or any other neurological disorder) as being ‘one thing’, we do ourselves and others a disservice and risk being defined by a very narrow set of traits.
Let’s rewrite the tired and harmful narrative that says that the ONLY thing that defines us as misophones is an aversion to certain sounds. Let’s look for the environments where we really thrive.
If you have any thoughts, reflections or comments I’d love to continue the debate in the comments section below.