Amygdala Connection

September 12th, 2016 by Paula Land, Au.D.


amygdala

Is this you?

Why do people with misophonia become so upset and angry with sounds when they don’t bother most people?

Part of our brain that controls emotions is the limbic system. It is part of the ‘mid brain’, located in about the center of your head and has several different parts. One part is the amygdala. The amygdala looks kind of like an olive and its job is to prioritize everything that comes into your brain – the smells, the sights, the tastes, the sounds, the feelings. There are so many things in our world that we can’t handle being aware of all of them. Some need to be weeded out. Some need to have high priority. It is the job of the amygdala to sort this all out.

Priorities

Now if the amygdala decides that whatever one is experiencing is unimportant, a low priority will be assigned and you may even forget about the stimulus. Did you put on shoes this morning? Did you forget about them? The amygdala doesn’t think they’re very important any more. Your brain has “habituated” to the feel of the shoes. However, if your shoes are too tight and may cause harm or injury to your feet, you may feel pain, and your amygdala tries to get you to pay attention to this pain and fix the situation. It may be hard to ‘habituate’ to this pain – it’s something that warrants your attention and needs you to take action.

If the situation is urgent enough, the amygdala starts other processes in motion for your reaction. It is the ‘fight or flight’ place. Is this a dangerous situation, do you need to take action immediately? Sometimes your life may depend upon your immediate action. The amygdala will spur you on. What’s that unfamiliar and unexpected footstep? Who is in the room that shouldn’t be there? Where is that child going that is dangerous? The amygdala alerts your autonomic system and you react without thinking. It keeps you – and perhaps family – alive. There are more pathways going from the limbic system to the thinking brain than from the thinking brain to the limbic system. It’s by design. Our emotions – fear, anger, alert – will get us moving faster than our thinking brain will.

In the case of misophonia, it is thought that the amygdala has identified some specific sounds (and sometimes specific sounds by specific people) to be dangerous, unwanted, or maybe just plain unacceptable. The sounds really need to stop. So the amygdala will focus on these sounds. Locate them so that they can be stopped. And another part of the brain actually makes these sounds louder in the brain (better able to hear them, identify them) even if you don’t want them louder. YOUR BRAIN THINKS THIS IS KEEPING YOU ALIVE.

So a person with misophonia has a brain that keeps focusing on obnoxious and gross sounds. The amygdala keeps them on alert. They become anxious (when’s it going to stop? How can that person be so rude?), fearful (it’s going to start again. I have to sit at the dinner table again tonight and it will be TERRIBLE!) and angry (these people MUST STOP making this noise! It’s driving me crazy and they don’t care!) The emotions are taking over, and the person is out of control. Parents, teachers and friends don’t have a clue.

Treatment is available

Treatment strengthens those connections from the thinking part of the brain to the emotional, alerting part, the amygdala, to retrain the amygdala not to put the priority on these sounds that it once did. We are retraining the thought process. Remember that our brains are ‘plastic,’ we can learn and change some pathways and therefore some habits. We want to start enhancing those connections from the thinking part of the brain to the emotional part; to retrain the amygdala not to put the priority on these sounds that it once did. Because misophonia trigger sounds are so intrusive, it is necessary to cushion these sounds in the brain so the brain can deal with them. If we eliminate the triggers altogether, the brain in unable to deal with them at all and the misophonia actually becomes worse. It’s a balancing act that requires the help of a professional.

Researchers have not determined why some people have such severe sound sensitivities. It is apparent, however, that they are real and in some instances are debilitating. But there is help.

So if this is what’s happening, what can we do about it? Does a person with misophonia have to live with it? Can it be cured? Like someone who is truly tone deaf, they may not be able to sing at Carnegie Hall, but they might be able to learn to play a musical instrument with instruction and practice. Our brains are made to learn. They are ‘plastic.’ But sometimes they also need special help. I am convinced that, if the person with misophonia could ‘habituate’ to trigger sounds on their own, they would. But since they can’t, professional help may be in order and has brought relief and even, in some circumstances, a “cure.” We want to start enhancing those connections from the thinking part of the brain to the emotional part, the amygdala, to retrain the amygdala not to put the priority on these sounds that it once did. And because the trigger sounds are so intrusive, it is necessary to cushion these sounds in the brain so the brain can deal with them. If we eliminate the triggers altogether, the brain in unable to deal with them at all and the misophonia actually becomes worse. It’s a balancing act that requires the help of a professional.

But why do the brains of some people do this but not others? Don’t know. Brains are different. Why do some people have perfect pitch but others can’t carry a tune in a bucket? Why is one child a mathematician and their sibling a writer? We’re just different. But like someone who is truly tone deaf, they may not be able to sing at Carnegie Hall, but they might be able to learn to play a musical instrument with instruction and practice. Our brains are made to learn. They are plastic. And when we need to change some of those processes, a professional is needed.

Paula Land, Au.D.

About Paula Land, Au.D.

Dr. Paula Land began her professional life as Lt. Paula Humphreys, USMC after receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree from Roanoke College. She transitioned to audiology in 1984, earning a Master of Science degree in Communication Disorders – Audiology from the University of Texas at Dallas and later received the Doctor of Audiology degree from the University of Florida in 2011. Dr. Land is Board Certified in Audiology, holds the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech Language and Hearing Association and is a Fellow in the American Academy of Audiology and the Tinnitus Practitioners’ Association.