Misophonia and danger of ‘Memetic’ Illness   

II FEB 9 2017

Ben Janaway
George Aitch

If you view ‘This Morning’ you may remember Eamonn Holmes talking about ‘Misophonia’. Greek for hatred of sound, this condition has been medicalised as ‘select sound sensitivity syndrome’. Sufferers find that certain sounds may trigger anxiety or negative emotions. These triggers may be the sounds of nails on a chalkboard or people eating with their mouths open. Regardless of Holmes attention, you will not find Misophonia in established diagnostic manual, and you will unlikely be signposted to an audiologist, a neurologist or a psychiatrist.

The condition is rare, usually self-diagnosed, and research is sparse. The nature of the disease is curious. Most data suggest a psychiatric component, with a strong link with anxiety disorders staking claim in its development.

How do we explain Misophonia without an established cause?  Within its coexistence with psychiatric disease lies a possible answer, it is a warning that something else is wrong. If crinkly tin foil makes you wince, then something is wrong. It may be that ‘Misophonia’ is a symptom, not a disease.

Memetics and media

So why broadcast about it on day time television? Subjective disease stories are commonplace, where self-diagnosis, need for an answer, the creation of self-support groups and demonization of medical professionals weave a common thread Other examples of this cluster might include electromagnetic sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease or Morgellons syndrome. A new criterion of ‘Memetic’ disease comfortably delineates the group. These are diseases that grow through social acceptance of an idea that may not be based on fact, but anecdote.

Now a ‘meme’ you probably will have heard of. Much in the same way that the gene carries genetic information from organism to organism, a meme carries an idea or cultural information. As some diseases and biological changes are the result of viral genetic information or our own mutated DNA, this idea of memetic disease proposes that some abnormal psychological experience and behaviours are the result of these memes. Behaviours are catching.  A simple example of this is a cult framework. The tenets and core beliefs of the cult are spread by initiates to create new members. Similarly, a person experiencing headaches or anxiety which aren’t explained to their satisfaction by a doctor.

Unsatisfied, patients will google their ‘symptoms’ and come across a forum or support group, perhaps they see one advertised on daytime television. They then adopt the group’s explanation for their problems, looking for belonging in a group and a label for their problems. This focus on the symptoms exaggerates them; ‘catastrophisation’ – one of the theorised mechanisms behind functional illness. This is akin to casting your line blindly into the sea and deciding your catch is worth dinner.

Overmedicalisation and the role of understanding

Use of contextual terms such as ‘syndrome’ or ‘disorder’ may ‘over medicalise’ these experiences, which in light of their cause could be more destructive than helpful. In fact, inappropriate treatment can obstruct remission. So far we have not found a pill, potion or intervention which reliably ‘cures’ these problems. What does seem to work are psychological interventions. In the case of Misophonia the use of desensitisation and cognitive behavioural therapy is the gold standard. Anti-psychiatry activists often accuse the medical model of overreaching itself, but in such disease we may question their cause.

It is important to realise both the limitations and strengths of the medical approach. Like any tool, clinical science is only useful when used correctly.  It is not medical professionals producing this medicalisation, rather the public who have been encouraged to be obsessed with their health. It may fall to medical professionals, as well as the media, to be realistic about the extent of medical science in treating and recognising atypical illness.

It may be that understanding, but firm, psychological management of people suffering from ‘Misophonia’ and its cousins, may bring about a cure that pills and google cannot. It seems that spreading information, like memetics themselves, may be the solution.
Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

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Dawkins R. The Selfish Gene. 30th Ed. 2006. Oxford University Press.