The Sound of Styrofoam

March 10th, 2009

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.