Scientists in search of sound reasons for the noise that annoys

Prof Trevor Cox
Prof Trevor Cox
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THERE are those of us who have to leave the room when exposed to certain sounds. For me, the noise that would be a perfect instrument of torture is the loud, dry, insistent whoosh of the Dyson hand dryer. It’s too close to the sound of that air-sucking instrument used by the dentist...only bigger and more aggressive.

A colleague gets unbelievably wound-up when anyone in the family eats noisily or sucks their fork or taps it against their teeth. The people concerned are told off, and if he doesn’t know them well enough to do so then he has to move away quickly. It’s not just about manners – the actual sound has a strong physiological effect on him. I’ve known people who have to get off a train or bus if they get stuck next to someone who breathes loudly or clicks their teeth.

Some find the sound of others’ loud telephone banter incredibly ennervating (as well as insensitive) and for others the trigger for this irrational state of stress can be the wilful “cracking” of finger joints, popping of bubble gum or the long, slow, scraping ritual some people indulge in when stirring a cup of tea. Talking of scraping sounds, many date their sensitivity to such noises back to the days when their teachers would regularly catch their nails on the blackboard.

For most, this aversion to certain noises isn’t actually debilitating as such. For others, the reaction is so strong and so regular that it makes them avoid people, activities and situations they would enjoy if not for the possibility of hearing that offending sound. The sensitivity can be so extreme that it breaks up relationships.

This reaction to sound has been called misophonia, and many sufferers report similar symptoms, which include onset of the reaction between the ages of 10 and 12, trigger sounds often being associated with eating or breathing and a reaction that is typically extreme rage.

While audiologists, psychologists and other scientists grapple with the causes and possible treatments – some people respond well to cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapeutic hypnotherapy, for instance – academics in other disciplines are intrigued by whether the likelihood of certain irritating noises affecting us so badly is conditioned in any way by factors such as gender, age and personality type.

One very young scientist – Izzy Thomlinson, 18, a finalist in the BBC Young Scientist of the Year competition – has, with the help of mentoring from Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at Salford University, designed an original online test aimed at measuring whether gender, age and personality influence reaction to a range of seven kinds of scraping sounds generally considered to be on the spectrum of those likely to annoy.

“The idea is to work out who’s affected,” says Prof Cox. “We know that hearing is at its peak in your 20s and goes downhill more rapidly after the age of 40, with the ability to hear high frequencies deteriorating quite rapidly – hence people reporting that they find it difficult to hear conversation properly in noisy places.

“The online test is available over the next few weeks, and it’ll be really interesting to find out if men or women, or extroverts or introverts and of what age are more likely to find the noises awful. We really don’t know what to expect.”

To take part in the survey, go to www.sound101.org/sywtbas www.misophonia-uk.org is a self-help group for those who suffer from misophonia