The Sound of Styrofoam

Why do some sounds bother us so much?

For the past five years, my husband and our younger kids have participated in an annual Pinewood Derby.  Each year there’s a different theme and he and whichever child is participating brainstorm about what the car should look like–and then they spend way too much time and money and effort trying to achieve their vision.  No creative project in our house is accomplished without some tears of frustration, although I’m proud to say that my husband holds it together much better than he used to. 

So I expected to hear the requisite muttered curses and occasional muffled screams emerging from our dining room (which took over the role of “work room” after I lost patience with sandpaper, paint, and plaster covering the kitchen table where we eat dinner every night).  What I didn’t expect to hear was a sound that made me moan in agony and almost throw up from discomfort.

The sound of styrofoam being sawed.

My husband was simply trying to make Egyptian pyramids out of styrofoam blocks so it would be unfair to accuse him of deliberately trying to drive me certifiably insane, thereby freeing him to inherit the family fortune and marry the maid and spend all my money (oh, wait, that’s “Gaslight,” not my life).  But if he had wanted to drive me insane, he had hit on just the right way to do it.

All my life, the sound of styrofoam rubbing against itself has made me crazy.  I have no idea why.  When we were little, we used to use these small styrofoam kickboards to paddle around the lake.  I could lie on top of one happily and kick all day.  But if my board scraped slightly against another one when I was picking it up, I would reel in agony.  And I’ve always hated going to parties where they use styrofoam plates because if someone happened to scrape a knife across his plate . . . unbearable.  It’s like nails on chalkboard to me.

And speaking of nails on chalkboard–what about that ?  It’s kind of like styrofoam rubbing against itself, right?  (Or styrofoam being cut with a steel knife, which I’ve now discovered is even worse than the rubbing.)  Why are these sounds so horrifying to us?

I realized I couldn’t think of a single biological reason for the physical reaction I (and many others) have to these sounds, so I called up my brother who’s a biology teacher in New York and asked him.  He said, “Huh.  I’ve never thought about it.”   One possibility, he suggested, was that there was once some kind of  predatory bird or animal that had a screech similar to those sounds and an instinctive reaction of aversion might have given an evolutionary benefit to those who had it.  (My son, who loves biology, came up with the exact same theory when I asked him.)

Of course, a lot of human traits are useless, conferring no benefit but also no detriment.  So there may never have been any point at all to this weird horror of a sound that for now, at least, doesn’t warn of any danger, unless you count how bad styrofoam is for the environment.

I also know people with similar, non-sound-related aversions.  My sister, for example, can’t stand the feel of raw wood.  She won’t even eat a popsicle.  (Not that she necessarily would anyway–but she REALLY won’t if it’s on a wooden stick.)  I don’t have that but I get it–raw wood’s a little like styrofoam to me.  Which also seems weird.  Why do they feel similar when I think about them?

This makes me wonder if the physical shuddering reaction she has to raw wood is in any way related to my physical shuddering reaction to styrofoam being rubbed or cut.    Do you or anyone you know have a similar issue?  I’m really curious about this now.  Or if you have any theories as to why these responses exist, please let me know.

As a funny coda to all this styrofoam business (oh, and by the way, I had to close the door on my husband and hide in the opposite side of the house when he was doing his styrofoam cutting work), I was using a sharp knife to cut vegetables on my plate at dinner last night, and I accidentally pressed too hard and grated the edge of the knife against the ceramic plate.  My 11-year-old daughter shrieked in agony and begged me not to make that noise again.

Oddly enough, it hadn’t bothered me at all.  But she had my sympathy.

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36 Comments

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36 responses to “The Sound of Styrofoam

  1. I was just searching on this subject, and found another article that I think has a plausible explanation: it’s a defense mechanism designed to keep us from hurting our teeth. http://amasci.com/amateur/screet.html

    Makes sense to me, as I know when I hear this, or metal-on-metal (who designed steakhouse plates made of metal anyway? Uggh!)… my teeth feel funny!

    Just a thought, as this was surprisingly difficult to research. I would think more people would be curious!

  2. Claire

    Oh, that does make sense! Thanks so much for telling me.

  3. KFP

    YESSSSSSSSS I hate the noise and feeling of stupid Styrofoam too!!!!! Along with cotton balls, velvet, chalk, so many things I wish I could get out of my life completely!

  4. Kyle

    Oh god yes. The whole “fingernails on a chalkboard” thing doesn’t bother me at all, but styrofoam is like torture. Good post, I’d never wondered *why* the sound was so annoying.

  5. I hate Styrofoam rubbing together too. especially when you have to cut a styrofoam square in half with a plastic knife. just thinking about it sends a shiver through my body. >_<

  6. Nathan

    Im so glad to hear that I’m not the only one. As long as I can remember the sounds of cardboard, construction paper, (or any form of paper rubbed on a rough surface in that case) and worst of all styrofoam have tormented me. It’s a relief to know that there could be a reason.

  7. Claire

    My husband just helped our son make a model of an atom, cutting circles out of styrofoam. I couldn’t be in the same room with them. What’s funny is my son was fine with THAT, but if I squeak my fork across my plate, he jumps five feet in the air and begs me to stop. This stuff is weird.

  8. Lindsay

    OMG! I have the EXACT same issues! my husband actually sent met his article. Everyone I know thinks I am crazy (and gets pure amusement out of torturing me with this) but I have never been able to explain it! FINALLY, someone else in the world! It’s AWFUL to me..I gag, make noises, run away…..just terrible!

  9. Claire

    It’s good to have company!

  10. Jade

    I have the SAME EXACT thing. Thinking about it gives me shivers. Also chewing on an itchy sweater. yikes!

  11. Tee

    OMG, i’m so happy i’ve found people who feel me on this! I knew I wasn’t the only one! My sister thinks I have a styrafoam phobia and she really jokes me about it because she asked me if I would run from a styrafoam monster and I said yes. Of course I would because his styrafoam arms and legs would probably be rubbing together. lol

  12. Jake

    Same here, I always get a wierd feeling when I hear the sound of styrofoam being cracked, rubbed, etc.

  13. Sierra

    I just want to let you know that you’re not the only one with a styrofoam issue. my best friend’s mother has the exact same problem, and she’s why I even came across this article. Anytime someone rubs styrofoam against styrofoam, she yells at them and begs them to stop. It mostly occurs when she takes home leftovers from a restaurant and the boxes stacked on top of each other slide and squeak. She shrieks in agony. I, too, despise this sound, but not anything like her. My most unbearable thing is touching paper with my hands when my hands are dry. I can’t stand it! Chills run down my spine. I have no idea why. It’s really weird, but the funny thing is my brother has the exact same issue. I didn’t even know this until last week. So I got to thinking that maybe some portion of it has to do with genetics. That’s a wild guess, but really, what are the odds that me and my brother BOTH can’t stand the feel of paper with dry hands? It’s definitely a mystery, and I’m glad I’m not the only one so intrigued and curious by it.

  14. Yeah, same here. Merely thinking about it sends chills up my spine. Strangely, fingernails on chalkboard doesn’t phase me in the slightest. According to an Ask Metafilter thread, someone did a study on this, and they found out that it was the middle frequencies of the sound that apparently bothered people.

  15. Bardo

    Why did I wait this long before checking the internet to make sure I’m not completely insane? I feel better now. I’ll feel even better if I never see styrofoam again, but I still feel better.

  16. Claire

    It just happened to me the other day–we got something in the mail and my husband was unpacking it from its styrofoam packing and I had to curl up in a fetal position until he was done!

  17. Anonymous

    I too, share your pain…..i wonder if it is a disability

  18. OmegaAlphaKing

    I too, share you pain…I was chased from the cafeteria in 9th grade when the boys found out…..

  19. zakee76

    I have that same problem styrofoam drives me crazy even when I think about the sound its like just happened and it stays in my head for a long period of time that sound doesn’t go away its horrible I will hurt somebody if they around me with that stuff and people thinks its funny ass holes

  20. dmg

    I swear if someone wanted to torture me to get national secrets, they’d just have to rub two pieces of styrofoam together and I’d spill my guts. I am so glad to see that I’m not the only one with this strange affliction!

  21. MIke. Betker

    Here”s something worse old,dry magic marker on paper. Makes my go insane. Thanks for the laughs, I thought I was alone on the styrofoam thing – GREAT post!

  22. kristina k.

    So interesting that you would compare the two things (raw wood and the styrofoam rubbing together) and how some people have such an aversion to different things, yet that aversion ‘feels’ the same. I know exactly what you mean by that. Great post on such an interesting subject.

  23. Bonnie

    I LOVE you all. I thought I was the only person who hated it with a physical reaction of nausea and goosebumps. Just thinking about it makes me want to hurl. I had to laugh at the torture comment (spilling state secrets). I had to call my cousin today to take a lamp out of a box for me due to it being COVERED in a sty box. I wanted to see it so bad…the sty had clear tape around it too. I TRIED to cut the tape over the sty with a knife. I stood there with the knife trying to psych myself up to do it….I just couldn’t. Just the thought mage me sick to my stomach…anyway THANK YOU for posting this. God bless you all!

  24. Keta

    I have the saame problem with styrofoam and I also do not like to touch paper, and I also refuse to eat a sucker with a paper stick…Ugghh…I just think about it not and my whole body shivers.

  25. My 10yo son has the same affliction–which we just found out. He also hates the sound of bubble wrapping being rubbed together or torn. He feels better knowing there are others who have the same aversion!

  26. Joel Wong

    Thank you SO MUCH for this – i’m glad i’m not the only one in the world. as i read your descriptions on the sounds of styrofoam touching each other (how i hate getting new laptops/computers/tools that are encased in styrofoam) and my whole body froze up and shivers kept running down my spine.

    i’d rather die!

  27. Anonymous

    Styrofoam is bad enough, but easily avoided… What is debilitating to me is SQUEAKY SNOW – at a certain temperature it can make almost the same noise. I tried to take my dogs out walking in the snow this morning and only got about 50 yards, the sound of the snow under my feet was making my want to retch with every step. I couldn’t believe my husband didn’t feel the same way. I just now realized that not everyone is affected by these noises!

  28. Tashia

    I’m happy I found this. I can’t stand that sound it makes me sick like literally sick and it makes me feel like I cant breathe when I hear it I know that sounds crazy but it happens every time I hear it I don’t understand why thought!!!

  29. Nikki

    So glad I found this! I’ve always had an aversion to styrofoam. But, I don’t think I’m afraid of it, per se. It just instantly makes me angry. My husband calls it a phobia but I’ve decided (with my almost 0 knowledge of the human brain haha) that instead of sending the impulse to the part of my brain that interprets sounds and tells me what they are…the frequencies of the sound waves of styrofoam go directly to the rage inducing part of my brain and I instantly want to destroy it, no matter the cost! I am a relatively calm person and it generally takes a lot to make me truly angry about something. Ya know, diss my family, call my cat ugly, tell me I’m dumb, flirt with my husband…these things are annoying… but rub styrofoam together and I turn into the Incredible Hulk! It makes no sense. I don’t enjoy the sound of nails on a chalkboard, not sure anyone does. But I would take 24 hours of nails on a chalkboard before having to listen to styrofoam rubbing together once…

  30. Mel

    I have never felt more at home in my life than reading this thread. Brothers and sisters of the styrofoam hatred it so richly deserves, stay strong.

  31. I have phobias of so many crazy things and I don’t know why. I’m scared of cotton,styrofoam, cardboard, and other crazy things like that. I would really like to have a name to put with my multiple phobias. If anybody can tell me the actual name I works greatly appreciate it.

  32. Brad Stephensen

    I am exited by heights, actually enjoyed handling a snake, consider spiders to be my friend and am intrigued by small spaces.

    However, I am absolutely and uncontollably petrified of the shreaking, bloody terror of the Styro-screech… Makes my skin crawl and the little muscles between my shoulder blades shudder just thinking about it …

  33. Richard Stainthorp

    I only just came across this thread, as I’m fairly new to the internet forum scene. However, I’m so glad I found this. I admit I haven’t read all the replies, but Styrofoam, or polystyrene as we call it in the UK, has driven me nuts since I was a child. The usual reaction is ‘oh drama queen’. It has a violent effect on my nervous system. I get goose-pimples all over my arms, neck, back and sides. My neck tenses up and I feel a tight, excruciating pain all over my body. I literally have to run away, as the pain is so uncomfortable (especially in my inner ears) that I can’t bear to be in the same room as the stuff, just in case somebody decides it will be amusing to squeak it to get the ‘drama queen’ reaction from me.
    I’m not sure whether any other responders have the same problem, but I also have a similar aversion to inflated latex balloons. The sound they make when somebody squeezes them or rubs them against their clothes is even worse than polystyrene to me.
    I don’t believe this is a psychological reaction. I think it is most probably that sufferers have a slightly higher frequency range to their hearing, and in the same way a sheep-dog whistle drives dogs crazy at close range, a similar reaction happens when we hear very high frequency sounds.

    Get rid of it, it’s bad for the environment. It hurts my ears.

  34. Richard Stainthorp

    Having now read a few more replies, I have to agree with many of the posts. Another one is if you have very clean hands, and take glasses out of the dishwashe, they squeak against your skin. I have dropped several. It seems to not only be the high frequency sound, but also the actual ‘high-pitched vibrations’ in your skin. Most people simply aren’t bothered in the slightest by any of it,. I wish I was like that.

  35. ray

    Just the thought of it (styrofoam) right now makes me shudder and really just physically uncomfortable. Nails on a chalkboard don’t really bother me. And with me it’s not just an irritating sound like smacking while eating or scream-sneezing. I mean it freaks me out–and it seems to be worse when static electricity is involved. Ugh…must..think…of…something…else…

  36. Troy

    I, too have suffered endlessly at the sound of styrofoam. It’s an unnatural ingredient and a more unnatural sound. As a toy lover, I always have to “quick grab” the toys out of boxes so as to try and avoid that scraping sound of the stuff. My favoreite post was the one spilling the state secrets….I absolutely howled at that !!! I’m glad I’m not suffering alone…..

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