Why are people told to “just tune out” annoying sounds, but these very same critics don’t feel this way when something begins stinking really bad?

How many times have you complained about a noise and were told to “just tune it out”?

Ever wonder if your critic could apply this same advice—tuning it out—should he or she suddenly find themselves sitting next to someone at the movie theatre with underarm odor?

“Oh, just tune it out,” someone once told me when I mentioned that a strange humming had started up in my bedroom wall.

It turned out to be from a water pump a few blocks away, and the water pipes running up the street were conducting the sound.

If I had told this person, “Lately there’s this strange smell coming from my heating vent,” he would have told me to check it out, get it resolved.

Next time you label someone with “noise sensitivity” and/or tell them to “just tune it out,” ask yourself how you’d feel if you were met with this same reaction upon complaining that your coworker, whom you must work close beside with every day, has really bad body odor or foul breath. Yes, just tune it out.

Or how about the reek of sewage? Suppose right outside your house, where you like to sit on the deck, there develops the stench of sewage.

  • Could you tune this out?
  • If it bothers you, does this mean you have some kind of “sensitivity” to odors?
  • Does it mean you have some kind of glitch in your brain or obsessive compulsive thought disorder?

Of course not! So why do people who complain of noise pollution or some kind of intrusive sound get labeled as being “sensitive to noise” or neurotic?

Granted, a foul or burning-type smell should be investigated, as it could indicate a problem that needs prompt mitigation.

If you suddenly smell chemicals, gas, something burning or what seems to be rotting flesh, this should not be ignored.

But there are other bad odors that you know are harmless, such as someone’s armpits and breath.

Shutterstock/Aaron Amat

Yet why not tune these benign odors out? I can go on and on with this, because I just don’t get why people are quick to invalidate noise complaints but not odor complaints.

One time my brother told me to “just ignore it” in reference to some kind of noise I had complained about.

I fired back, “If you think tuning it out is so easy, let’s imagine your neighbor is playing a recording artist whose voice you absolutely cannot stand—volume up—all day long. Could you tune it out?” He had nothing to say about that.

What does a doctor say?

“We have five senses, they say, but the five are not really created equal,” says Marc I. Leavey, MD, a primary care physician with 40+ years of experience.

Smell, it turns out, may well be the first sense of which we are aware.  The sense of smell is hardwired to an area at the top of the nasopharynx, called the cribriform plate, and is active essentially at birth.

“The sense of smell helps us find food, recognize the scent of our mother, and other vital needs.

“While we can hear from an early age, the startle of a baby to a loud sound is evidence of that we need to learn what sounds mean, learn language and music.

“These learned sounds need processing by the brain to be understood; and can thus be filtered out.  Scents that are primary stimuli to our senses are not so easily ignored.”

Noise Sensitivity vs. Odor Sensitivity

There actually exist disorders relating to the intolerance of sound. One such condition is called phonophobia.

But if you’re complaining that the water pump to your apartment complex’s pool squeaks throughout the night, interfering with your sleep, this is not a sign of phonophobia — or another disorder called hyperacusis, which is intolerance to sound.

Certain sounds are intolerable to some people but embraced by others. A classic example is that of children’s screams during play. You either hate this or delight in this, it seems.

Same with thunder. Some people enjoy hearing the rumbles, while others are put on edge. Some people love opera music while others cringe.

But when it comes to bad odors…the aversive nature is universal. How many people like the stench of garbage?

How many people do you know enjoy inhaling sewage odor or the stench of a public porto-o-potty? Does anyone like the smell of rotting fish or vomitus? How about hot tar?

And I doubt that anyone hates the aroma of freshly baked bread, brewing coffee and a bouquet of flowers — though something tells me not to bet on that.

Dr. Leavey was formerly with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, where his focus was primary care and internal medicine. He has a blog, STRING OF MEDICAL PEARLS.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.
Top image: Tinnitus Freepik.com, katemangostar
Source: hyperacusis.net/hyperacusis/4+types+of+sound+sensitivity/default.asp