Hey, wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world? Harry and Lloyd from Dumb & Dumber are clueless about almost everything around them – except a surprising expertise in how to be annoying. Lloyd’s “most annoying sound in the world” hits all the right, aggravating notes; it’s unpleasant, distracting, difficult to ignore, and you do not know when it will stop – it’s pure obnoxiousness. How could it not be annoying?
Well, since you asked, a new book has the exact answer you need. Written by NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca and Science Friday’s Flora Lichtman, Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us explores thescientific findings of what irks us and why. From loud cell phone conversations to your spouse’s grating habits, Palca and Lichtman uncover the fascinating science behind being annoyed.
So, how could Lloyd’s screaming not annoy you? If you were missing a specific part of your brain, the cingulate cortex, the “most annoying sound in the world” might not bother you at all. The cingulate cortex is involved in emotion forming and processing. So without it you cannot form an emotional response to Lloyd’s “most annoying sound in the world.” How do we know this? Patients who underwent a cingulotomy (a removal of the cingulate cortex) to treat an obsession were able to ignore the obsession post-surgery. In addition, at the University of Southern California a study examined the brains of annoyed participants in an MRI machine found a positive correlation between blood flow to the cingulate cortex and level of anger.
Those studies suggest the cingulate cortex plays an important role in annoyance, but definitive research has yet to be done. So, for fun, let’s keep your cingulate cortex intact and start removing two other portions of your brain: the hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial for consolidating memories from short- to long-term, and the amygdala, the section of the brain responsible for forming and retaining emotional memories. Say you are sitting in a quiet café reading a book and the person next to you sucks on their straw loudly. At first, it does not bother you – you assume the person will stop – but then the person keeps doing it and the sound becomes more and more annoying until you cannot even attempt to read your book. Without the hippocampus, you would not remember that the straw sound even annoyed you. But, and here’s the interesting part, you would feel annoyed if you still had your amygdala intact. With your cingulate cortex in place, you would become annoyed and your amygdala would translate your annoyance into an emotional memory. So, even if you believed it was the first time you heard that sound, you would feel annoyed. Cutting out the hippocampus and amygdala might even stop you from getting annoyed altogether – as long as you cannot form an emotional memory and you forget the straw sound before you become annoyed, you can read your book in peace.
The brain is a small focus of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us – there’s more to what irritates us. Annoyance is a complex mix of biology, psychology, chemistry, and other science disciplines – and even if understanding it does not solve those daily annoyances, at least you will understand why.