Are Your Ears Driving You Crazy?

Man covering both earsSome movies go deeper than others.

Especially movies about submarines.

The Hunt for Red October and Das Boot are two of my favorites, but since Netflix came out with The Wolf’s Call, I love the genre even more.

Of course this only has a little bit to do with me being able to take my new Dolby Atmos® sound system to its limits.

The Wolf’s Call (Le Chant Du Loup) is about Chanteraide, a French submarine technician known for his “Golden Ears.” With just a few seconds of audio, he can detect the make, model, and nationality of another vessel. In times of a nuclear crisis this is a good ability to have.

I’m not going to spoil the movie by telling you the plot, but if you like tense scenes in small quarters and the future of civilization being at stake, I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy this French production.

I watched the movie while no one else was in the house, and the realistic 3-D surround sound effects put me right in the middle of the action.

In a way, the main character of this movie reminded me a bit of myself. I spend most of my days in closed, darkened quarters, listening carefully to my students, my colleagues, and to my own voice.

My ears are used to picking up every sound, every pop, every crackle, every bit of mouth noise, every breath, every sign of high frequency sibilance, and low frequency rumble. 

I wouldn’t be able to do my job without my “golden ears,” but here’s the problem:

I CAN’T TURN THEM OFF!

Perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it’s a side-effect of what I do for living. Having worked in radio and doing voice-overs, my ears have become super sensitive. Some may call it professional deformation, a physical or psychological condition stemming from years of working in the same profession.

Here are some of my annoying symptoms:

– I’m avoiding big movie theaters because I usually find the sound too loud (especially the trailers). And when I go to see an IMAX blockbuster I bring ear plugs.

– I’m staying away from social situations where loud music is playing, and people have to yell to make themselves understood (e.g. the annual NYC VO Christmas Meetup).

– I don’t go to restaurants where the music is loud or live. Americans named it the number one most bothersome aspect of eating out. According to Zagat’s 2018 survey of dining trends, loud music outweighs the usual suspects of bad service and high prices.

By the way, there’s a handy app helping you to monitor sound and find quiet eating spots called SoundPrint.

– I hate fireworks. It’s become legal in Pennsylvania to buy a wide variety of noisy firecrackers, Roman candles, and bottle rockets. However, it’s illegal to set them off within 150 feet of an occupied structure. Of course no one cares.

This year the fireworks noise in my neighborhood started weeks before July 4th, and it’s still going on. Every time I hear a loud bang, it startles me, and my heart rate jumps through the roof.

KILLING ME SOFTLY

But it’s not just the volume of the sound that bothers me. Lately, I cringe at softer sounds as well. For example, I find the smacking noises of people eating close to me thoroughly annoying. Someone gulping loudly on a beverage disgusts me. I loathe people chewing gum with their mouth open.

The other day, I was sitting next to a guy in a hospital waiting room who was exhaling very audibly through his snotty nose. I had to sit elsewhere and ended up next to a man who put his earbuds in, and began listening to booming hip hop. Aargh!

Of course there were tons of kids playing beeping games on their irritating tablets, mothers talking trash on their cell phones, and TV’s blasting the latest terrible news. It’s the ideal environment for healing to take place, don’t you think?

LOSING HEARING

The trouble is that we’ve created a noisy society where people have grown accustomed to a certain decibel level and have learned to tune out unwanted sounds. Or -in case of a younger generation- they’ve lost part of their hearing and they don’t know it.

I’ve noticed this when coaching teenagers and people over sixty. When I point out some of the noises I hear in their audio, they are incredulous because they don’t hear what I hear. It’s not because they won’t, but because they can’t! I have to show the pops and clicks on the soundwave to them, otherwise they don’t believe me.

Anyway, my ears seem to be fine, and what I am experiencing may be the result of selective sound sensitivity syndrome, or misophonia (literally: hatred of sound). It’s a disorder in which certain sounds trigger emotional or physiological responses that some might perceive as unreasonable given the circumstance. According to WebMD…

“Individuals with misophonia often report they are triggered by oral sounds — the noise someone makes when they eat, breathe, or even chew. Other adverse sounds include keyboard or finger tapping or the sound of windshield wipers. Sometimes a small repetitive motion is the cause — someone fidgets, or wiggles their foot.”

BETWEEN THE EARS

According to recent studies, misophonia is a brain-based disorder. Researchers point to a disruption in the connectivity in parts of the brain that process both sound stimulation and the fight/flight response. It also involves parts of the brain that code the importance of sounds.

Just to be clear: misophonia is not a psychiatric disorder. It is a complex sensory disorder that impacts the brains ability to process information.

I can tell you this: having had a stroke certainly disrupted my brain in a major way. It still reaches sensory overload pretty quickly, and has trouble processing information. That’s why it’s not safe for me to drive a car. At the same time, I also believe my ears have been trained to be sensitive to sound and to detect anomalies.

In other words, it’s a blessing as well as a curse.

If you recognize this sensitivity to sound and you feel comfortable sharing this with the world, please add some comments below so people like me know we’re not alone.

If you have some of the same symptoms, you might want to check out Misophonia International, a resource website developed by two sufferers of misophonia. In the U.S. there’s also the Misophonia Association, an organization revolving around education, advocacy, research, and support.

I think I’m coping with what my ears tell me by using an avoidance strategy. If I have to go to public spaces that are known to be noisy, I take my headphones and listen to my favorite podcasts, such as the VO Boss and the VO Meter. It’s my way of tuning out the environment.

On other days, I just have to watch one of those fabulous submarine movies.

How about Down Periscope or Operation Petticoat?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal

11 Responses to Are Your Ears Driving You Crazy?

  1. Heather Henderson

    Yes, yes, to your blog post and to what everyone said in their comments. I feel your pain! I’ve dealt with this all my life — as well as tinnitus, hyperacusis, all kinds of -usses and -isses. The worst for me is auditory processing disorder, which makes it hard for my brain to multi-task and prioritize more than one sound at a time — so if the TV is on while someone is talking to me, I want to scream and break things. My iso booth is my refuge from the overwhelming outside world of sounds; I always come out of a session feeling soothed and recharged. Sorry your stroke has made some of this worse, Paul, but as usual, you are dealing with it in your practical and empowering Dutch way. Thanks for writing about it!

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  2. Dennis Kleinman

    Paul – I concur completely with all you have said. As I was reading your blog, the word misophonia came to mind as was pleased to see that further along. I also can’t stand the sounds of mouth noises when someone is eating – it creates a feeling that borders on uncontrollability almost bordering on rage – I think it goes back to my German grandmother who would always tell people to eat with their mouths closed. What I have become so much more aware of is the amount of noise that exists around – we are in fact being bombarded with noise pollution which is very unhealthy for the soul. Great article in bringing attention to what so many people gloss over as being part of life!!

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  3. T Diaz

    How about the potential for lots of sibilance in “selective sound sensitivity syndrome?” Hey, I might have to use that as a part of a vocal warm-up! 😉

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  4. Ted Mcaleer

    Good aural hygiene begins young. I was an ASSHAT about insisting on correct hearing protection when there was noise in and around a workspace. As a result I maintained my hearing for 21 years on warships. I silently suffer when a repetitive noise happens – One of the great things about being in the booth is, the only noise is the one I’m making! 🙂

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  5. Roy B. Yokelson

    Thanks for explaining Paul. I do not suffer from this, although we both ‘hear for a living’. I AM sensitive to, and annoyed by, LOUD TV playing, especially when it’s just on as background noise. Now that my parents have hearing aids, visits there are less ‘painful’.
    Keep up the good work, Paul – and: Shhhhhhhh!

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  6. Anna Crowe

    My experience is not quite so severe, but I am aware of my sensitivity, which I always attributed to DNA and 30 years as a TV producer for both audio and video. Want to drive me nuts? Have two audio sources (a TV and a radio) playing at the same time. Device volumes are almost always too loud for me, I’m always turning stuff down. I hear every mouth noise, every sharp breath (NPR, PLEASE!). Loud restaurant? Don’t care how good the food is, I won’t be back.

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  7. Joe Passaro

    I actually found out I likely have misophonia thanks to a DNA test through 23andme. Apparently it’s a pretty common trait. We’re not just grumpy–we have a physical reason you’re loud chewing bothers us!

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  8. Brad

    Thank you so much for this Paul,
    I did not know that my affliction was a real thing and that it had a name !
    I’ve always suffered from this and only has been made worse by becoming a full-time voice actor.
    I now find myself shutting down a bit in a loud bar with music playing and people screaming to be heard ?

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  9. Helen Lloyd

    Oh I am so glad to find that I am not the only one! I absolutely avoid shops and restaurants with music, hate going to the cinema, wear earplugs when I’m going to noisy places. Noise pollution seems to be everywhere! And I seem to be hypersensitive. Thought I was the only one!

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    Larry Wayne Reply:

    As we age, our hearing begins to suffer. I have tinnitus. Probably from wearing my Koss Pro 4 headphones to Mach 2 when I was a young dj. Ringing in my ears never stops but gets louder after I return from a loud event. Movies. Lots of people. Riding in noisy cars. It brings the ringing level up. My brain amazingly tunes out the ringing unless I am thinking about it. But it is causing me to not completely hear some conversations. If people speak to me with their back turned, I am toast and have to ask for a repeat. This annoys my wife, understandably. Looking for hearing aids that can not only bringing high end sounds back for me, but also cancel out the ringing from the tinnitus. Moral of the story…you younger vo people…stay away from loud noises, music, environments. You will eventually pay for it.

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  10. Joshua Alexander

    It’s Crimson Tide for me- have you seen that one? Oooo! Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Classic! Dolby Atmos THAT, my friend!

    I hear you though. I’ve always been sensitive to little audio annoyances like loud chewing or irritating idiosyncrasies that prohibit me from enjoying speech or music or interaction. Maybe I’m a bit ADD in that regard. But I get it!

    Yours in annoyance,
    Josh

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