Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you study?
I am an experimental psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego. I am studying Misophonia under Dr. V.S. Ramachandran and music cognition (specifically absolute pitch) under Dr. Diana Deutsch. In 2011 I received my B.A. in psychology and music from the University of California, Berkeley. Additionally, I’ve been a violinist since I was 5 years old, so when I’m not conducting research I can be found performing all around southern California in orchestras, chamber groups, bands and theatrical productions.
How did you get interested in Misophonia?
Back in 2011 (my first year of graduate school), my advisor Dr. Ramachandran received an email from a member of a Misophonia support group inquiring if we could begin some research on the disorder. At the time, no one had really heard of Misophonia, so we decided to invite a few members of the support group to the lab for preliminary interviews and testing. To an extent, I could relate to some of the negative feelings experienced by these Misophonia sufferers, because nobody loves the sound of another person loudly chewing gum or clicking their pen in class. For the most part these are sounds that people consider to be annoying, and I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first as to whether this phenomenon was an actual condition or whether these individuals were simply more vocal than others about their sound issues. However, after talking to a few individuals and understanding the toll that Misophonia had taken on the quality of their lives, I realized that the disorder was definitely worth a further look. Ultimately, it was the severity of these people’s reactions paired with a lack of experimental research that inspired us to conduct our first study.
Some of our readers are familiar with your published paper on Misophonia, but some are not. Would you mind describing your study for us and telling us about your findings?
Our paper, “Misophonia: Physiological Investigations and Case Descriptions,” consisted of two main experiments. Experiment one was a series of interviews with self-identified Misophonic individuals. Since there were no official diagnostic criteria at the time, our goal was mainly to elaborate on the symptoms and behaviors associated with the condition, in hopes of gaining a more concrete understanding of the Misophonic experience.
It was in experiment two, however, that we actually collected physiological data. Experiment two was particularly important because, until recently, the only evidence we had was subjective reports from people describing autonomic arousal to certain sounds. Therefore, the goal of experiment two was to see if Misophonics actually show a quantitatively different physiological reaction to certain sounds than non-Misophonic individuals. The experimental design was such that Misophonic and non-Misophonic individuals were asked to view and listen to a series of videos and sounds (some of which we knew they disliked and some of which we considered neutral). While listening to/viewing these, they were simultaneously hooked up to electrodes that measured their skin conductance response (SCR). This equipment is sensitive enough to detect trace amounts of sweat produced from acute emotional reactions.
In addition to collecting this physiological data, we also had participants provide subjective ratings for each clip they saw or heard (on a 0-4 scale, 0 meaning the clip caused no discomfort at all and 4 meaning the clip caused extreme discomfort and anxiety). We found that Misophonic individuals showed heightened ratings and skin conductance responses to auditory but not visual stimuli (relative to non-Misophonic individuals). Additionally, we found evidence that Misophonics find similar stimuli to be aversive and non-aversive on a subjective level. The results of experiment two largely appear to validate the severity of Misophonia beyond anecdotal descriptions, and provide the first physiological evidence in support of this.
A link to the full paper can be found here: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00296/full
What do you think your particular area of research might add to the larger body of Misophonia research?
I believe that our particular area of research is unique in the sense that it provides both qualitative and quantitative evidence for Misophonia. The goal of our first study was to validate the experiences of Misophonia sufferers by showing that there are indeed both psychological and physiological differences in how they process certain sounds. In our future work, we intend to build upon the findings from our first study in order to develop possible strategies or inventions that may be utilized for treatment.
Are there any ways in which you think this research might one day translate into treatment for sufferers, or is it too early to make that connection?
I certainly believe that our research may one day translate into treatment for sufferers – after all, treatment is the ultimate goal. However, as research on Misophonia is still in its infancy, we are currently focusing only on trying understand all of the ‘ins-and-outs’ and quirks of the condition. I believe that once we have a clear understanding of how certain factors can modulate the severity of the Misophonic response, we will be more equipped to devise the most effective means of treatment. Currently, our lab is just beginning a new study that (if successful) may have potential application for treatment. I will definitely keep you posted about that.
I am sure that, since your paper was published, press reporters have asked you about Misophonia. What do they usually ask you? Do you find it difficult to explain the kind of work that you do to press reporters?
Speaking with press reporters can sometimes be tricky, as they have a tendency to sensationalize your research. For the most part though, I would say that I have had positive experiences with the reporters I’ve spoken to, and have been satisfied with the way in which they have portrayed my work to the public. I tend to receive a lot of questions about treatment and cures, a topic I do not feel qualified to speak on at the moment as we simply haven’t found an end-all, standardized treatment yet. Therefore, a strategy that I actively employ when speaking to reporters is to stick strictly to the data and what we already know. If something is still speculation, it is important that it is portrayed as such and not as fact. This can sometimes be difficult when dealing with a topic like Misophonia, on which little research has been conducted, but I’ve found that it is the most effective way to avoid widespread inaccuracies.
You have told us that you are also interested in music. Would elaborate on that and how that applies to your work (and/or inspires you in any way)?
As a lifelong violinist, sounds have always been a huge part of my life. In fact, all of the research I do with both of my advisors revolves around sound, but in two very different ways. With Dr. Deutsch, I study sounds specifically in the context of music, or sounds that people generally enjoy. However, with Dr. Ramachandran I study Misophonia, which is almost the completely opposite scenario. Although I do not suffer from Misophonia, I do feel that my musical background has afforded me a unique perspective when conducting research on it, as I am well aware of the ways in which sounds can evoke profound emotions in people.
If you could set up a lab with a team of cross-disciplinary researchers to study Misophonia, from which disciplines would you choose these individuals (neuroscience, audiology, etc.)?
I think it would be extremely beneficial to have neuroscientists and audiologists, as well as clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians, all collaborating together to conduct Misophonia research. Right now, a major problem for Misophonia research that needs to be addressed is the lack of communication between various fields of study. Researchers from different disciplines all have unique and valuable perspectives on the topic, but this information is not being communicated in an effective manner across groups. I believe that an interdisciplinary research environment, while simultaneously promoting a more unified dissemination of knowledge, will be the most effective at fostering breakthroughs in the field.Want to learn more? Join a Workshop with Dr. Jennifer Brout or Duke CMER at Misophonia Education.