NJRE Injury

On of the great quandaries of experimental design is how to put people into stressed states, without actually harming them. That is, how do we make people feel stress without say, going to the trouble of convincing their bosses to assign them extra projects or taking away their money or making their relatives ill?

A solution has been screaming babies.

Babies, when they cry, and especially when they do the shrieking, crying, colicky noise-making, are near-impossible to ignore.

No, really, they’re nearly impossible to ignore. This video is 1:32 minutes long, consisting entirely of one unhappy baby. Try listening to it all the way through at a normal noise level. The first time, I shut it off at 0:11 seconds when I noticed my shoulders crawling up to my ears. A canny professor teaching child development a few years ago forced our class to listen to two minutes of a screaming infant, then said flatly, “You will listen when parents tell you they’re overwhelmed.”

Babies distress-crying, unlike the whine of the A/C that you can tune out, or the car-horn that eventually stops demanding attention, are hard to push to the back of your awareness. This is good! The evolutionary adaptation that makes us care a lot (and not be able to sleep through) a crying child is quite adaptive! Parents do need to wake from a dead sleep to respond to their child.

In short, the success of crying baby sounds as an excellent in-laboratory mechanism for inducing stress is that they’re painfully uncomfortable to listen to, and you cannot tune them out.

Now, let’s talk about NJRE’s.

I came across Not Just Right Experiences in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, and there was immediate recognition.

“not-just-right-experiences, or JFREs as some OCD researchers and patients call them, are relatively common, and not just among people with OCD. Like an itch, the sensations that one’s clothes don’t fit right, or the experience of seeing a crooked picture on the wall, NJREs violate our expectations for order.

Most of us learn to tolerate these violations and either don’t notice or feel nothing more than simple recognition that something is out of place or off-kilter. But for people with OCD, NJREs can be quite dramatic. I once consulted on a case of a young man who was completely incapacitated by various NJREs and had been hospitalized. For instance, he did not feel right when passing through a doorway unless his shoulders were equidistant from the doorjambs. The discomfort kept him trapped in his room.”

NJREs with obsessions and without are like the difference between the pen tapping in a meeting and a screaming baby. It’s this constantly present, mentally loud feeling of wrongness. You might notice that a picture is crooked, and it might hover on the edge of your awareness, I notice clothes fitting a certain way and I cannot carry a conversation; it’s so distracting. As described in Stuff, people with hoarding disorder get it with their items moved, particularly putting things in the trash. I’d bet people with misophonia have something similar with those sounds — hear someone chewing? It just. won’t. go. away. Every NJRE is the screaming baby.


One going theory is that it’s the anterior cingulate cortex, which we think might be used in detecting errors, but also handles emotional regulation and impulse control. What if this is what happens (speculative, oversimplified model):

At some point very early on in the development of the disorder in question, your ACC  screws up and shouts that things are wrong

You ended up flooded with distress. This is bad, and you want it to stop.

Because your first reaction is not that synapses in your brain might be misreporting, you look for what’s wrong.

A plausible explanation comes to mind (chewing noises! clothes fit more tightly! things are not symmetrically arranged!) and you go fix the thing or change clothes or drown out the chewing noise.

Your brain gets the message that you’re doing something to fix the Wrongness and quiets down a little.

Hey presto, you’ve just started conditioning yourself! For bonus points, the anterior cingulate cortex is also responsible for impulse control. Perhaps this plays into being unable to avoid responding to NJREs?

So, just not being obsessive? Just deciding to throw that stuff out? Just focusing? Imagine doing that with a screaming baby in your head.

Fergus, T. A. (2014). Are “not just right experiences” (NJREs) specific to obsessive-compulsive symptoms?: Evidence that NJREs span across symptoms of emotional disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70(4), 353-363.

7 thoughts on “NJRE Injury

  1. Oh! you’ve just maybe explained something that has happened to me very occasionally, and that has up till now been inexplicable. I’ve just been going about my day, and had that sudden experience of wrongness. But there’s never been anything actually wrong, and I’ve never been able to work out what triggered it. Fortunately, as there never was anything I could fixate on (it often hit when I was outside and on my own, just walking down a quiet street) I never got as far as the ‘conditioning’ phase and the feeling would wear off after a few minutes. Sounds like I’ve been lucky!
    By the way, I’ve been reading your blog for a little while now (from when you started blogging at FtB) and love it, so I’m very glad you’re going to be writing more about the things you like to write about here.

    1. Thanks for reading! Yeah, this is mostly a speculative model, but it sounds like your experience could fit.

  2. I must be weird. The crying baby was unpleasant, not something I’d listen to by choice. But not unbearably so, and was able to listen to it completely (while reading the rest of the post) without much difficulty.

    1. Intentional distraction (like reading the rest of the post) can help! To continue the analogy this is part of why fidget objects or hobbies that require some measure of attention can help with obsessive-compulsion loops.

      1. I tried distraction with my first son who had colic. Nothing worked. Inotice disorderbut am never bothered to obcess – sometimes I wonder what caused the off balanced object or my own posture but, treat it as a puzzle to be solved. Your blog is thought provoking.

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