Do Certain Sounds Enrage You? Neurologists May Know Why

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iStock

If the sound of a co-worker repeatedly clicking his pen can send you into a flaming furor, take heart: You’re not being hypersensitive, and you’re not alone. Neurologists in the UK have spotted physical differences in the brains of people with this sound-related rage, although whether these differences are the cause or the result of the disorder remains to be seen. The scientists published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The technical term for that noise-triggered irritation and rage is misophonia (“hatred of sound”). People who have it experience uncontrollable and intense negative emotions after hearing certain repetitive noises like chewing, lip-smacking, pen-clicking, and foot-tapping.

It’s a relatively new concept within the medical community, although people have been complaining of symptoms for a long time. To those who’ve never experienced misophonia, it may sound silly or made-up—which is what many doctors have concluded. Others have categorized it as a form of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The authors of the current paper wondered if the problem might not be psychological but neurological. They recruited 20 British adults with misophonia and 22 without, and gave them all questionnaires to gauge their responses to various noises. Then they put each participant inside MRI and fMRI machines and played them all sorts of noises, including the benign (a kettle whistling, rain), the universally unpleasant (a baby crying, someone screaming), and common misophonia triggers (breathing, chewing).

As the researchers suspected, the results for the two groups looked very different. People with misophonia had more myelin, or insulation, around the gray matter in their prefrontal cortex. They also showed abnormal connections between this cortex and the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in processing information and emotions.

Hearing the trigger noises caused a spike in activity in both cortices for people with misophonia. For people without it, activity only increased in the prefrontal cortex. The trigger sounds also provoked a clear stress response in people with misophonia. Their heart rates increased and they began sweating.

Lead researcher Sukhbinder Kumar is a neuroscientist at Newcastle University and University College London. He says his team’s research should reassure people with misophonia and validate the condition’s existence to their doctors.

“Patients with misophonia had strikingly similar clinical features, and yet the syndrome is not recognized in any of the current clinical diagnostic schemes,” he said in a statement. “This study demonstrates the critical brain changes as further evidence to convince a skeptical medical community that this is a genuine disorder."

It also suggests a possible way of treating the condition. “My hope is to identify the brain signature of the trigger sounds,” Kumar said. “Those signatures can be used for treatment such as for neuro-feedback, for example, where people can self-regulate their reactions by looking at what kind of brain activity is being produced."

Why Thousands of 'Penis Fish' Washed Up on a California Beach

Kate Montana, iNaturalist // CC BY-NC 4.0
Kate Montana, iNaturalist // CC BY-NC 4.0

Nature works in mysterious ways. The latest example materialized at Drakes Beach near San Francisco, California, in early December, when visitors strolling along the shore stumbled upon what looked to be the discarded inventory of an adult novelty shop. In fact, it was thousands of Urechis caupo, a marine worm that bears more than a passing resemblance to a human penis.

The engorged pink invertebrate, which is typically 10 inches in length, is native to the Pacific coast and frequently goes by the less salacious name of “fat innkeeper worm.” Burrowing in sand, the worm produces mucus from its front end to ensnare plankton and other snacks, then pumps water to create a vacuum where the food is directed into their tunnel. Since it builds up a small nest of discarded food, other creatures like crabs will stop by to feed, hence the “innkeeper” label.

You can see the worm in "action" here:

Because the worms enjoy a reclusive life in their burrows, it’s unusual to see thousands stranded on the beach. It’s likely that a strong storm broke up the intertidal sand, decimating their homes and leaving them exposed. The event is likely to thrill otters, as they enjoy dining on the worm. So do humans: Penis fish are served both raw and cooked in Korea and China.

[h/t Live Science]

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

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