In a scene from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the three main characters have breakfast in a religious silence. Reynolds Woodcock, the fashion designer played by Daniel Day Lewis, has his peace disrupted by the noisy gestures of his model and partner, Alma, who’s just buttering a biscuit. “Please don’t move so much, Alma,” Woodcock says, barely controlling himself. “It’s a distraction, it’s very distracting.”
Alma (Vicky Krieps) is baffled: “Maybe you’re paying too much attention.” The designer then compares her movements to a horse galloping around the room and storms out. Woodcock’s sister, who silently witnessed the whole scene, remarks: “His routine, when he’s in it, is best not shaken.” His sensitivity is blameless; the unavoidable sounds her body makes are not.
It is with some discomfort that I realize I behave like Woodcock sometimes. I try to ignore sounds, but I can’t. They carry me out of myself, hold me on a leash, fully absorbing my concentration. When I hear certain sounds, I don’t just hear them; I observe them. I linger over them. I’ve asked people I’m near enough to overhear, both acquaintances and complete strangers, to turn down the volume of their headphones, to keep their feet still, to stop whistling. When I hear the weak, repetitive sound, neat and syncopated, of someone chewing gum I know they are not to blame, they’re acting normal, but I can’t keep myself from giving them a dirty look.
Misophonic triggers can feel like auditory dark patterns, as if they were deviously designed to distract us rather than being incidental
For a while I thought this tendency of mine to be highly irritated by the personal noises others make just made me an asshole, but I recently found out that it’s common enough a phenomenon to have its own term: misophonia, which was coined by the audiologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff in 2003. The condition, which is also known as sound rage or selective sound sensitivity syndrome, has been associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, hyperacusia, and Tourette’s syndrome.
The misophonic seems to have a negative predilection for the body sounds of others — rubbing, sniffing, scratching, crackling, wheezing, whistling — but their own body functions properly: Misophonia is generally seen as a mental disorder, not an acoustic one. The problem is in the mind, not in the ears. Those suffering from it react to specific trigger sounds with negative emotions and thoughts (anger and repulsion but not fear — in that case, the disorder is called phonophobia). The triggers are not necessarily loud sounds but repetitive ones; they are often produced by another person’s gestures (chewing, finger tapping, swallowing, etc.), the sight of which can increase the misophonic’s reaction. In that case, misophonia pairs with misokinesia, negative feeling about certain movements.
Like ASMR, another auditory phenomenon whose triggers are not so different, misophonia has been regarded with some skepticism. For non-experts, it can be hard to believe that such anger can be caused by such slightly noticeable sounds, whereas audiologists and psychologists still don’t agree whether it is a symptom or an actual medical condition. Nonetheless, it has in recent years become a small cultural phenomenon, garnering coverage in newspapers around the world, including this 2011 piece from the New York Times. There are also websites, including Allergic to Sound and Misophonia.com, that are full of information, tutorials, and merchandising related to the condition.
If misophonics were to add a holiday to the calendar, it would probably commemorate the advent of noise-canceling headphones, which eliminate environmental sounds by producing a soundwave equal to and contrary to them — a kind of anti-noise. This idea — of an active intervention against environmental sound rather than simply trying to find better ways to close one’s ears — dates to the 1950s and the needs of aviation industry: Planes were very noisy, and it was crucial for pilots to fully understand the audio information they were receiving. Now, as a consumer technology, noise-canceling headphones help reinforce a bubble of productivity, relaxation, or both. They offer the hope of being able to retrace the boundary that separates signal and noise as needed.
In his recent book Hush, comparative media studies scholar Mack Hagood describes such technologies as “orphic media,” as they fight sound with other sounds, just as Orpheus does in Greek myth to protect the Argonauts, blotting out the Sirens’ deadly songs with his lyre. Orphic media, Hagood writes, are “empty” in that they aren’t meant to convey any content. But the fact of this emptiness allows us to reframe our perspective on media in general: They need to be understood not only as means of carrying information but also as the remediation practices between space, subjects, and technologies. Media — be they orphic or not — “reshape our engagement with self, other, and the world.” Thanks to their vacuity, orphic media emphasize how all media ease or hamper certain relations, regardless of the informational exchange involved.
Hagood mentions misophonia only in passing, focusing more on tinnitus, a disorder that makes people perceive an excruciating phantom sound and is often comorbid with misophonia. However, his reading of a 2015 commercial for Beats by Dre headphones, called “Hear What You Want,” is suggestive of how misophonia may be more generally reinterpreted. In the ad, we follow Colin Kaepernick (before his kneeling protests began) as he is confronted by opposing fans who scream insults at him. Kaepernick reacts — or, more precisely, doesn’t — by wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which silence the contempt endemic to his environment. This recasts misophonia as not the hate for sound but the sound of the haters.
The misophonic’s plight is thus best understood as both affective and social. In the documentary Quiet Please, misophonic interviewees admit that they have problems functioning in society; one speaks of “vivid violent images,” while another tries to use art as a therapy, creating sculptures with dozens of retractable pens buried in lime. On Facebook, there are support groups (as well as a dating group; spending one’s life with a misophonic person is not easy), the largest of which has 18,000 users and includes many pictures of unsuspecting people being pilloried by group members for emitting various triggers. As one interviewee in the documentary put it, “The people I’m closest to are the ones that bother me the most.”
The risk here is to consider any manifestation of life as a push notification, to see other people’s activity as an enduring attentional bombardment
In a Guardian piece from 2015, actress Melanie Lynskey provides this definition of misophonia: “It’s a brain condition when you can’t comprehend anything else when you hear a gross noise.” This also points to a potentially useful rethinking of the condition: It is not the sound itself or the parasocial interaction around it that causes anger but the inability to focus it produces. That is, a sound that other people ordinarily shift to the background presents to the misophonic as having meaning, as addressing us, interpellating us, to adopt a word from Louis Althusser. The trigger is a sound that becomes voice, and since this voice bothers us, it seems like a personal insult, like the crowd of enemy fans. Drawing on Althusser, we could go further and speculate that the fundamental source of annoyance has to do not with being deprived of focus but with being burdened with consciousness: Whereas we can obliterate ourselves when we’re deeply focused on a task or a thought — when we are in the so-called zone — a disturbing noise brings us back into the equation as self-conscious subjects.
Some scientists see attention impairment as the link between misophonia and Tourette’s syndrome. In 1994, Michael J. Kane, at the time a psychology student, conducted an introspective study of Tourette’s, proposing an interpretative model of the disorder as a kind of hyperattention, caused by a dysfunctional inhibition mechanism. Kane refers to an “enduring somatosensory bombardment” and gives the example of sitting in a chair while constantly maintaining the tactile awareness of his body touching such chair. A series of tics help him elude his somatic hyperattention, but only temporarily. Misophonia could be seen the same way, not as a matter of undifferentiated auditory hypersensitivity but of hyperattention to what Kane calls “goal-irrelevant” environmental information.
To borrow terms from Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s general model of communication, misophonics cannot help turning noise into signal, rendering the distinction between the two illegible. They can’t avoid trying (and failing) to decode what are in effect pseudo-signals. In this sense, misophonia is an inverted ASMR: Rather than experience tingling pleasure at background sounds becoming foreground, misophonics feel irritation bordering on rage. Misophonia, which expresses a rejection for the body and for how it inadvertently exceeds communicative protocols, for the sensuality that cannot be reduced to a message, may be seen as a bodily incarnation of informational hygiene.
Authors like Mark Fisher and Byung-Chul Han have argued that capitalism mystifies the social causes of psychopathologies, offloading guilt and responsibility onto individuals, but what happens when the ones who suffer from these very pathologies develop negative sentiments against other people? What causes might lie behind misophonia, which make sufferers intermittently regard other people as nuisances?
The repetitive sounds that irresistibly draw and saturate misophonics’ concentration can be likened to another contemporary phenomenon: push notifications, which are also designed to hijack attention. Misophonic triggers can feel like auditory dark patterns, as if they were deviously designed to distract us rather than being the incidental and inevitable sounds people make when going about their business. But the analogy may also work in the opposite direction: Push notifications may prompt users to become increasingly misophonic. I wonder whether the recurrent retreat to a digital space can contribute to the intensification of misophonia or to its development. The risk here is to consider any manifestation of life as a push notification, to see other people’s activity as an enduring attentional bombardment.
Technical selective silencing isn’t limited to the virtual square
Continuous exposure to this control regime could lead to frustration and anger toward “notifications” that presents themselves as signal but are not. Are we so addicted to the fantasy of having absolute control over our flow of information that we have become intolerant of the inputs that we cannot silence? Hagood proposes an understanding of noise in a social sense: as othered sound. A tech-fuelled lust for informational control and illusory mastery may increase this othering dynamic.
Misophonia is not just a specialized condition then but perhaps also an emergent characteristic of a society supported by a phone-driven individual-centric infosphere that is itself split into bubbles. In the digital environment, eliminating what is considered noise seems easy. To silence a person screaming in a public square, we would have to engage with them physically, whereas muting people in online forums seems to require only some clicks and, moreover, with a simple gesture we can make the square disappear entirely for us. Of course, though, if we were being harassed in these spaces, shutting down our devices does nothing to silence the harassers or nullify their broader effects. Technical selective silencing isn’t limited to the virtual square. Not so long ago, Amazon patented a system that not only cancels the surrounding noise but detects certain sounds or keywords, such as a car horn or the name of a user, making these audible. The task of discerning signal from noise can be now offloaded to the machine — a kind of automated intolerance.
But are we sure that isolation is what we really want? What happens if, instead of going for immediate sonic protection and programmed sound analysis, we “stay with the trouble,” to borrow Donna Haraway’s cogent formula? If we bear in mind that the sound that bothers us so much is neither signal nor noise, that sound is the other, and that the crucial “goal-relevant” things we wanted to focus on might not be that crucial after all … then, the audible person materializes as something other than a distraction. At that point we might suddenly realize that what we construe as “goal relevant” is the distraction, not the person who may intersect with our life in an unpredictable way and prevent us from doing those things, always the same things, over and over. That person chewing gum or whistling to themselves might be there to liberate us.
The author thanks Sami Hammana for reading and commenting a draft of this text.