Proximity is one reason. Our hearing apparatus is designed to focus on sounds that are nearby rather than sounds that are far away. So snoring — coming as it does from the next pillow over — occupies more of our attention than a similar noise from down the street.
Snoring is also irregular. Unlike the white noise of a city or a river, snores happen sporadically, changing speed and intensity with the sleeper’s breath and position. You can’t lull yourself into a rhythm listening to it. Instead, the anticipation of when the next snore is coming makes you more anxious.
The wide variety of sounds produced by a snorer is also a problem. Most earplugs and noise filtration devices block out certain frequencies better than others, but snores can range from high-pitched wheezes to bearlike groans and growls — sometimes in the same breath.
The human airway is a powerful and gifted instrument.
What makes snoring so frustrating to treat is that it’s caused by a number of different and sometimes overlapping factors, from weight to intoxication to allergies. One of the most common for recurring snorers is obstructive sleep apnea.
When the upper airway is completely blocked, whether by excess weight, inflamed tonsils or some other cause, your diaphragm and chest have to struggle to force air through it and open it up again. That heavy breath is the source of snoring’s surprising volume.
Avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills can help prevent sleep apnea, as can losing weight. Dentists can also fit snorers with plastic inserts that keep their mouths open at night. If those don’t work, many sufferers find relief by using a CPAP machine, a sort of oxygen mask that you wear while you sleep that forces continuous air through your breathing passages.
In extreme cases, there are even devices implanted in the chest that deliver electric pulses to the nerves in your neck, commanding them to keep the airways open.
But the irritation you feel when your partner snores might be partly on you. Misophonia, also known as “sound rage,” is a mental condition that causes irrational anger in 15–20% of the population when they hear certain sounds — like chewing, whistling, or… snoring. Fifteen to 20% is a lot, so when you overlap those numbers with the percentage of people who snore, sparks start to fly.
Why do we snore, though? You would think that millennia of evolution would have weeded out this undesirable trait. One theory is that, way back in the day, snoring was a defense mechanism against predators — when you snore, you’re easier to wake from slumber, and the noise warns any animals that a potentially dangerous human is present.
Since we don’t have raccoons trying to steal our nuts and berries anymore, that warning sign isn’t really needed. Instead, it’s a cacophonous relic of a simpler time that is keeping people awake night after night.