Fingers incessantly drumming on the table. A leg in the periphery of your vision that hasn’t stopped twitching for the past half an hour, or a little child who has been squirming in her chair for too long….
If you’re someone who finds it hard to focus in such conditions, there’s a term for this phenomenon – misokinesia, translated as the ‘hatred of movements’ - and it’s more common than you would think. It turns out that school teachers who vehemently commanded us to ‘sit still!’ for the mental peace of others actually had scientific backing.
Last year, in a first-of-its-kind study published in the Nature journal, two researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) - Dr Todd Handy, psychology professor and Sumeet Jaswal, a psychology PhD student - studied ‘misokinesia’ among almost 4000 people and made a startling discovery.
Every 1 in 3 of us may have it
“It is a psychological phenomenon that is defined by a strong negative affective or emotional response to the sight of someone else’s small and repetitive movements, such as seeing someone fidget with a hand or foot,“ the researchers explain.
Jaswal and Dr Handy had conducted three studies with questionnaires – first, with around 3000 undergraduate students from UBC and next, with almost 1000 adults, and found that there was a consistent prevalence of one-third people experiencing it across two of the studies. Not only was it a real issue, it was very commonly faced!
They are negatively impacted emotionally and experience reactions such as anger, anxiety, or frustration as well as reduced enjoyment in social situations, work and learning environments. Some even pursue fewer social activities because of the condition.
Dr Handy, the UBC researcher, explained in an article on UBC News, “They are negatively impacted emotionally and experience reactions such as anger, anxiety, or frustration as well as reduced enjoyment in social situations, work and learning environments.
“Some even pursue fewer social activities because of the condition.”
Dr Tulika Shukla, DHA (Dubai Health Authority) certified psychiatrist at Millennium Medical Center, Dubai says, “If you ask me, it is very common to experience this – getting upset or irritable when other people are fidgeting. If there is a movement in the corner of your eye or somebody is constantly moving in your field of vision, it can be distracting.
“You might have seen this in couples or children, where someone is constantly tapping their foot or the child is moving, and the parents put their hand on them and says, ‘stop it’. Especially if the person is trying to focus….
“But it is not very commonly reported to us, the only context is when the child has ADHD, and the mother is trying to talk and tells the child to be still – that is when I have seen misokinesia in action in person.”
We all have tics – this is a mantra I keep repeating to myself as I get more and more annoyed with my family member who has a propensity to fidget. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing. Movie – check. Sitting and chatting – check. Petting the dog – check. There is always some sort of awkward moving of hand and foot,
A 35-year-old UAE expat, who prefers to remain anonymous, recounts similarly experiencing misokinesia when seeing her brother, who has ADHD, constantly fidget: “We all have tics – this is a mantra I keep repeating to myself as I get more and more annoyed with my family member who has a propensity to fidget. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing. Movie – check. Sitting and chatting – check. Petting the dog – check. There is always some sort of awkward moving of hand and foot, of grasping things and putting them aside. And doing it again. And again. And again. It took a while for me to realise that this isn’t a nervous reaction or something he’s doing to irritate me – that’s a bonus – it’s more to do with his ADHD; it actually helps him focus.“
Is your answer a ‘yes’ or ‘no’?
Moreover, the study found that some people experience it much more intensely than others – in their Misokinesia Assessment Questionnaire (or MkAQ) that asked 21 questions to assign a score for the degree to which someone experiences negative thoughts, feelings and emotions regarding misokinesic visual stimuli, most had scores that were 15 or less but were significantly higher for some.
Misokinesia may also increase with or be affected by age – a larger proportion of those in the third study on older adults showed very high misokinesia sensitivity as compared to those in the second study on students.
We may be ‘mirroring’ the fidgets
A reason for misokinesia, the study discusses, could be our handy ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that help us empathise with others. Dr Shukla explains why, for example, we can get anxious when seeing other people anxious and fidgeting: “Mirror neurons are the mechanism of empathy. They are actually there in our prefrontal cortex – and when we see anybody else doing a specific physical movement or expressing an emotion on their face, our mirror neurons are activated, and without even realising – you mimic those.
“For example, when we are watching a movie and the person on-screen is crying, you might start crying – or in a suspense or thriller, it pushes you to the edge of your seat. You start mirroring what you’re seeing.
Mirror neurons are the mechanism of empathy. They are actually there in our prefrontal cortex – and when we see anybody else doing a specific physical movement or expressing emotion on their face, our mirror neurons are activated, and without even realising, you mimic those.
“It can be distressing for you as well, because you are not really going through it, but you get very distressed by other people’s distress. We are social beings, and this is how we understand what the other person is experiencing.”
Then, as people generally fidget when they are agitated or nervous, this could translate to you also feeling similarly emotionally restless, she explains. However, the researchers say that this would be an area of research going forward.
The study also theorised that those with misokinesia may be more susceptible to shifting our attention to visual triggers in our peripheral vision or may have an increased inability to ignore such triggers – explored under ‘visual-attentional sensitivity’… but the results ultimately didn’t support this.
This can be related to misophonia
Actually, the term ‘misokinesia’ was first coined back in 2013 when three Netherlands-based researchers were studying another, similar concept – misophonia. This is when we strongly respond negatively to specific sounds, sometimes human-produced – such as chewing, breathing or lip-smacking, and is treated as a psychological disorder now.
“Basically, if there are repetitive sounds in background while you’re trying to focus,” explains Dr Shukla.
She recounts having patients who have discussed this in context of another problem such as an anxiety, “For example, they tell me, ‘I am very irritable these days, my partner is sitting next to me and eating, I get very irritated by the crunching noises… and this is usually part of another problem.”
But, although misokinesia and misophonia can overlap, Jaswal and Dr Handy found a percentage of individuals reporting one but not the other – which led them to conclude that they may not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
What can you do if you feel misokinesia may be interfering with your daily life? Dr Shukla says, “I don’t think that this independently would be a problem or disorder – it may be distressing and treating any underlying disorder would be the way to go forward.” She adds that for example, this could sometimes be a representation of anxiety or ADHD.
And, in the future, could we see this open up a new way of looking at our social interactions?
Dr Shukla says, “I think the reasons for this also need to be understood before we find out how this can impact schools and organisations – we need to understand why it changes, why older people may experience it more and why people are less immune to it. Then we can look at applications of the same.”
I am also someone who can get distracted by constant fidgeting, although I fidget myself - and am tapping my feet as I write this – but knowing that it’s a shared, human experience is a bit comforting, wouldn’t you say?