At a Mexican restaurant. Waiting for my family to get here. Listening to people eat chips with their mouths open. Everywhere. Kill me. Kill me now.
—misophoni-yites on tumblr
For people who experience what has come to be known as “misophonia,” the sound of other people eating can inspire “rage, panic, fear, terror and anger, all mixed together.” This fight-or-flight response can be triggered by other everyday sounds—footesteps, for example—but mouth sounds seem to be the most common complaint. Most of us have never heard of misophonia, but for those who identify with the term, it finally puts a name to a subjectivity that suffuses their everyday lives.
Coined only in 2003, misophonia is poorly understood at present. As with two longer-established auditory conditions I study—tinnitus and hyperacusis—the lines that define it are blurry. What is it? What isn’t it? What causes it? What ameliorates it? Is it even “real”? Misophonia has yet to be constructed as a clear object. A tumblr post such as the one above can be viewed as one person’s effort to help realize it as an affliction. The more real misophonia becomes as an object, the more sympathetically the poster’s actions will be interpreted socially. Better to be a “misophonia sufferer” than “that jerk who won’t ever eat with us.” Moreover, suffering from something that others don’t understand can be lonely and disempowering. Putting a name on this subjectivity and circulating it through social networks opens up possibilities of identity, community, and action.
Could there be a downside to socially networking misophonia, however? In realizing disparate and poorly defined auditory experiences as a singular pathology, do actors strengthen the neurological, conceptual, social, and technological connections that support its experience? In other words, given the plasticity of the brain, words, society, and science, do networks actually remake the world in misophonia’s image rather than merely clarifying the public image of a preexisting affliction? With a phenomenon such as misophonia, which is so subjective as to make the mind-body distinction seem rather absurd, the question seems pertinent.
The point here is not to suggest that misophonia is “just” in people’s heads and therefore not real. Rather, as Annemarie Mol has shown with something as “concrete” as atherosclerosis, a great number of words, techniques, and technologies must be deployed to make symptoms cohere as disease—and this achievement subsequently exerts profound influence on future actions and material conditions. Mol’s ontological approach to disease has the potential to resolve nature-culture debates such as the controversy surrounding the inclusion of “culture-bound” psychiatric syndromes in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a “both-and” rather than “either-or” approach to disease, treating cultural discourse as one of many types of associations that construct its reality, rather than an overlay that obscures or distorts that reality.
My ongoing ethnographic research into tinnitus (“ringing in the ears”) points to possibilities and potential pitfalls of misophonia’s emerging coherence and circulation as an object. Through networks of research and activism, tinnitus has gained wider recognition, specialized treatments and clinics, a fairly powerful advocacy group, and a loose system of physical and online support groups. However, there is no cure, and many of my clinician interlocutors express concern that their patients’ increased attention to tinnitus is perversely turning up its subjective volume. (Neurologists and audiologists often describe this in terms of strengthening the neural pathways of tinnitus through “checking on it”). We might anticipate, then, that socially networking misophonia may make it more real in social space and more real in subjective headspace. What empowers the sufferer may also empower the condition.