If You Can’t Stand It When People Fidget, You May Have Misokinesia

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Todd Handy was astonished when his romantic partner pointed out his “fidgeting habit, which I wasn’t aware of, and she confessed that she experiences a lot of stress whenever she sees me or anyone else fidget,” he said in an interview. A visual cognitive neuroscientist, Handy immediately (and romantically) wanted to study what was happening in his partner’s brain.

In the first ever study on misokinesia, or the “hatred of movements,” Handy and his fellow researchers have found that nearly one-third of the population suffer when other people wiggle.

“Surprisingly, scientific research on the topic has been lacking,” said lead study author Sumeet Jaswal in a press release. Indeed.

Studying hatred of movement

To investigate misokinesia, the researchers ran three studies, involving 4,100 participants. After a questionnaire based pilot study given to students suggested over 30% of respondents were bothered by other people’s movements, the researchers moved on to an experiment.

In the experiment, 689 participants were asked to complete respond to a visual detection task by pressing buttons. The researchers predicted that those who were distracted or bothered when they wiggled an object in the task would show performance differences from the group that did not report misokinesia. To their surprise, they found no behavior difference between the groups. So the fidgetting irritated participants, but they still completed the tasks just as well.

So far the researchers had “found that for those experiencing misokinesia sensitivities, there is a high degree of individual variability in how those sensitivities are manifest or impact their daily lives.” But that data was collected from a student population, and they wanted to know more about the experience of “an older, more demographically diverse sample.”

In the final part of the study, they surveyed 1007 adults and found about the same rate of people reporting misokinesia: 35.9%. Even more interesting, they found that symptoms of misokinesia intensified in older age groups. Which explains a lot about why teenagers who twirl their hair or squirm in their seats at the movies annoy the rest of us.

“These participants were negatively impacted emotionally and experience reactions such as anger, anxiety or frustration,” said Handy, a UBC psychology professor. “They were also negatively impacted socially and report difficulty and reduced enjoyment in social situations, work and learning environments. Some even pursue fewer social activities because of the condition.” 

Mirror neurons

The researchers were particularly interested in whether misokinesia might be related to the activity of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are located primarily in brain areas having to do with movement, like the premotor cortex and the the supplementary motor area. They activate when a person “executes a motor act and when he observes another individual performing the same or a similar motor act,” according to one paper.

“These neurons help us understand other people and the intention behind their movements,” said Jaswal. “They are linked to empathy. For example, when you see someone get hurt, you may wince as well, as their pain is mirrored in your own brain and that causes you to experience their emotions and empathize with them.”

Jaswal thinks this may account for some of the distress people with misokinesia feel from other’s fidgetting. “A reason that people fidget is because they’re anxious or nervous,” said Jaswal, “so when individuals who suffer from misokinesia see that, they may mirror it and feel anxious or nervous as well.”

Misokinesia and misophonia

Of course, this immediately made me wonder if misokinesia is related to misophonia, the condition where the sound other people breathing or chewing drives you insane. Like when your office mate obliviously chews raw carrots. Every day.

People with misoph0nia actually experience a fight-or-flight response to annoying noises, that can show up as an intense emotional reaction like anxiety or anger. They have also been found to have greater myelination in their brains. “Myelin is a fatty substance that wraps around nerve cells in the brain to provide electrical insulation, like the insulation on a wire,” according to health.harvard.edu. Myelin is responsibility for the efficiency of electrical signals in nerve cells: in other words higher myelination means faster nerve impulses. But scientists don’t know if extra myelin is a cause or an effect of misophonia.

It turns out that the researchers for the misokinesia study also saw the similarity with misophonia. Their initial a pilot study surveyed over 2700 people with questions about both misokinesia and misophonia, and found high rates of both, 38% and 51% respectively. It remains to be seen whether misokinesia is also associated with differences in myelination.

One thing seems obvious: the reality that 1 of 3 people can’t stand fidgeting is worth considering in the new movement toward human-centered design. It’s worth considering which humans our offices or public venues are designed for, and whether misokinesia could be part of why open office plans often don’t work out well.

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