Not many people have heard of misophonia – which is ironic, because it has everything to do with hearing. It describes extreme reactions – in my case, mostly rage, but in the case of others it may be anxiety or disgust – to certain sounds. I don’t actually know whether I have misophonia. It seems low on the list of conditions I have to worry about, or potentially worry about, but there is no doubt I get disproportionately irritated by certain sounds, all of them human-made.
The issue is that while some sounds are inconsiderate (leaking music from headphones, for instance, which I think most people can’t stand), others are socially acceptable. Kids constantly shrieking are just expressing themselves; someone can’t help if it if they need to clear their throat repeatedly. The man nonstop clicking his lighter during a bus ride wasn’t harming anyone, but I had to politely and apologetically ask him if he would mind stopping, because otherwise I wasn’t sure I would end the journey with my nerves intact. I have a two-stage strategy with continuous whisperers in the cinema: a dagger stare, then going over and asking them to shut up.
It will come as no surprise, then, that I find absolute silence almost a divine state. Lying on my back in a cyan sea recently, both ears underwater, staring up into a sky uninterrupted by clouds, I felt as though every problem I had could sink into the sand and bury itself. It was almost total silence: the world on mute; the chatter of Twitter buttoned as it leaves opinionated mouths.
I don’t hate all noise. In fact, I have written a column in this magazine about the various sounds of sport, most of which I adore: the swish of nets; the squeak of trainers on courts. I hate whispering in the cinema, but I love it on the ASMR playlists I listen to. I enjoy the clack of a keyboard. But being awake during the night, when sound sometimes stops like a needle being lifted from a record player, is stunning.
A physicist will say there is no such thing as “absolute” silence. The lowest sound level in the natural world is that of particles moving through gas or liquid, known as Brownian motion. But tech companies have tried to top this, creating sound-sealed rooms known as anechoic chambers. Apparently, spending 45 minutes or so in one will make you go a bit mad – it is that quiet. I would still like to know if there are any in the UK that will let me visit.