Today was one of those rare, amazing days where you finally find out that it DOES have a name, it IS a thing, and other people DO know what you’re talking about! For over thirty years now I’ve quietly wondered what was going on or if anyone else experienced it, but it was such a random and somewhat elusive phenomenon that I never held it in working memory long enough to dig into it further, much less to really consider how I’d even ask someone about it. It was so vague and ethereal – yet completely euphoric in the moment – that I could never totally crystalize the idea. Now I have something to call it, and I can have meaningful discussions about it any time I choose. I’m talking about ASMR, people!
Okay, yes, I hate acronyms, so I’m going to tell you what ASMR is. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Yeah, that thing! Wait, still not clear? Well it’s a sensory nervous system response that is triggered by some external or internal stimulus that culminates in a euphoric, non-sexual climax and may or may not be controlled by the subject having the experience. Yes? No? How about “head tingles?” There ya go.
Have you ever experienced that situation where you’re sitting in a rather quiet room, maybe a library, and you can faintly hear someone start whispering, not just any whisper but one with a very calm, soothing tone? And then maybe someone turns a page in a book in a very slow, relaxing manner. Soon a woman with long, fake fingernails starts to type on her keyboard, but not in a hectic, heavy, or staccato manner, more of a light, rhythmic tapping? Then maybe you start to close your eyes a little bit as you begin to feel very relaxed, and then…ahhhhhhhh…your head starts to tingle? And then it travels down your spine a bit, maybe into your arms, and you just want to curl up into a ball and take a nap?
Stumbling Upon ASMR
I was cruising reddit today at work…oops…check that. I was cruising reddit today AFTER work *wink* when I discovered that there is a “Random Subreddit” button. For those of you who don’t know what “reddit” is or a “subreddit,” I didn’t either until a few weeks ago when I signed up and read some of the “Reddiquette” rules and FAQs.
Reddit is a site that calls itself the “Front Page of the Internet” because its users all post links to stuff so that other users can “upvote” or “downvote” them, thus determining what is “cool” or “not cool” on the Internet, allowing you to quickly and easily find that cool thing on reddit that will satisfy your curious soul in a way never before possible.
The more techie term for a site like this is an “aggregator.” It’s kinda like going to a fish market rather than going out into the ocean to try your luck at catching fish. And “subreddits” are simply smaller categories by which to find stuff rather than looking at the whole of reddit, kinda like the oyster bar within the fish market for people who specifically like oysters (yes, please!).
So yeah, I clicked this “Random Subreddit” button, and it took me to the subreddit page for “ASMR.” My first instinct was “Great, they took me to a kinky sex forum at work. Is anyone standing behind me right now?” But then I looked closer at some of the posts and read the description of the page and eventually found the phrase “head tingles,” and I thought “Wait a minute…is that…what I think it is?” The posts were all full of videos that users found gave them head tingles when they watched and/or listened to them along with text posts and comments about their experiences.
Even more interesting, I see each video post is tagged with a label of “intentional” or “unintentional.” For the intentional videos, someone actually made a video for the sole purpose of giving you head tingles! And for the unintentional videos, they just stumbled across a video they were watching for other purposes, realized it gave them head tingles, and decided to share it on reddit so that everyone else could enjoy a tingly scalp on their own time.
For the next hour at my desk…damnit…on my couch, I was completely checked out getting a full-on brain massage by watching and listening to Soba Master Tatsuru Rai demonstrate his craft in soba noodle making. There was just something about the sound of that rolling pin smoothing out dough that became oddly trance-inducing and relaxing…and eventually head-tingling.
This was followed by viewing some guy do his best homage to Bob Ross and some other dude pouring water slowly over ice. After that there were lots of videos of people whispering, ruffling papers, and folding towels. I actually tried to listen to one of them while I wrote this post, thinking it might help me relax and focus, but I couldn’t type a damn word sitting here with my eyes shut, drooling like a lazy labrador getting his belly scratched. That’s the power of ASMR.
The History of ASMR Becoming a Thing
Let’s get down to business here and fill you in on autonomous sensory meridian responses via the all-knowing Wikipedia. It’s no wonder I went so long not knowing what it was called. It wasn’t until 2010 that cyber security professional Jennifer Allen coined the term and then started the Facebook page “ASMR Group.” It seems many folks tried to muddy the waters and lump this phenomenon into the sexual/erotica/fetish category, so her acronym of ASMR tried to mute that view to a degree. She defined it this way:
Autonomous – spontaneous, self-governing, within or without control
Sensory – pertaining to the senses or sensation
Meridian – signifying a peak, climax, or point of highest development*
Response – referring to an experience triggered by something external or internal
*Try as she might, the word “climax” didn’t do a very good job of avoiding sexual connotations
Most of the stimuli for ASMR tend to be acoustic in nature (based on sound), though some people experience it from visual stimuli as well. Common triggers tend to be whispering voices, sounds, or visuals of people performing mundane, repetitive tasks like page turning or towel folding. Other triggers include situations in which people are receiving altruistic, tender personal attention like getting their hair brushed or beard shaved.
Moreover, it seems there are two categories of people who experience this. One group can only have it triggered by an external stimulus, while the other group can generate it on command via attentional control mechanisms like meditation or intense focus (and that will now forever be my personal goal).
Not to Be Confused With…
There have been some comparisons made between ASMR and another auditory phenomenon called misophonia. Misophonia is a condition in which people can become very sensitive to certain sounds to the point where the sounds bring about strong feelings of anger and disgust (I’m raising my guilty hand here in front of my keyboard). Things like breathing, sniffing, clock ticking, and other repetitive sounds have been known to elicit such a response from these people (like me).
Since both ASMR and misophonia have auditory triggers, and one seems to be the opposite of the other, it seems natural to make the connection. In fact, in my personal situation, I find that certain sounds can trigger either response depending on the details (perhaps the exact frequency of that sound wave?). For example, as a kid, I always used to love sitting and listening to my grandfather’s deep, rhythmic breathing, but sitting in a room listening to my brother breathe nearly drove me to madness (sorry, bro). Likewise, I could listen to a certain college professor type on her keyboard all day with her fingernails, but I couldn’t stand a former coworker’s god-awful cadence of typing.
ASMR has also been confused by some with another term called “frisson,” and they do feel quite similar, but they are still distinctly different. “Frisson” is a French word for “shiver,” and it is used to describe the situation that arises when you are moved by a particular passage in music, for example, and begin to get chills or goosebumps. In a case of frisson, you usually wind up feeling that physical shiver and vibration. With ASMR head tingles, though, you’re completely still and relaxed.
My Theory on ASMR
So what in the world is this whole ASMR thing, and why does it happen? Well, there is very little research about it to date, and most of that is just surveys of people and their experiences as opposed to hard science about the physiological reactions in the body. As you probably expect, however, I do have a speculative take on the subject.
Based on everything I’ve read, along with my own personal experiences, it seems pretty clear to me that ASMR occurs as a result of triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relax). There are obvious reasons to believe this. One is that it creates a tingly, euphoric feeling along with a deep sense of relaxation and pleasure, which sounds like a releasing of endorphins and happy hormones. It’s the opposite of that fight or flight stressful feeling.
Some of the other not-so-obvious reasons are those I am drawing from my own personal dot-connecting. Most people report triggers that have a lot of things in common: soft voices, calm voices, mundane housework, altruistic personal attention, etc. These things all seem to sound like nurturing from a parent, most likely the mother. They remind us feelings of safety, being cared for, being loved. And when you are safe, cared for, and loved, your biology can come off high alert to relax and recover. The coast is clear, so to speak, so take a chill.
I believe this is also why the “same” sound – generally speaking – can be both an awful misophonia trigger as well as an awesome ASMR trigger depending on who or what is making the sound and how it’s made. A very calm, collected female lightly chewing gum and turning pages of a book? That makes me feel quite safe and gives me oodles of head tingles. A nervous man chomping on gum, breathing heavily, and bouncing his foot on the floor? He’d better have a bodyguard around because I’m about to take that sucker out!
And the ultimate for me? There was a girl back in high school algebra class that sat in the desk right behind mine. I won’t name names because…well, you likely don’t know her anyway. I usually hated people who didn’t close their mouth when chewing, but this girl had just a little bit of an adorable smacking sound every time she chewed her gum. Each day I would just be in heaven, melting into my chair, tingly head to toe listening to the most wonderful sounds coming from this angel on earth.
I wound up having to spend extra time at home studying and finishing my homework since I couldn’t focus a lick in class, but it was so worth it. It also didn’t hurt that I was extremely attracted to her at my wet-behind-the-ears, awkward age of fifteen…and now we can see why Ms. Allen tried hard to separate ASMR from it’s possible overreaches into sexual phenomena! For what it’s worth, I still believe this is distinctly different from any sexual reactions, though they may compliment each other very well if given the opportunity.
So Yeah, That’s ASMR…
I don’t know if there are any huge takeaways from today’s post, but I found that it satisfied some odd and bizarre curiosities in some remote nooks and crannies of my mind. Perhaps it did the same for you, especially if you’ve been wondering about it for years as well. That said, if it truly does elicit the parasympathetic nervous system response, perhaps this could be an interesting therapy for anxiety or sleep disorders or a new means of enhancing recovery from exercise or injury?
If you check out ASMR videos on YouTube, anyway, some people clearly believe it can serve as such a therapy. They even go as far as to make hour-long role-playing videos that incorporate almost any known ASMR trigger they can find along with a touch of “personal attention” as if they were talking straight to you or massaging your scalp through a computer screen! Now those get a bit bizarre for my taste, but hey, it’s not the weirdest thing on YouTube for sure.
Has anyone else experienced this ASMR phenomenon, or am I in a smaller minority than I thought? Did anyone read this and immediately have a light bulb go off in their head? Did anyone not know what it was but then watched the videos and experienced it for the first time? I’m extremely curious to hear your feedback!
As usual, if you liked the post, please share with your friends and leave some comments. Or if you didn’t like it, leave a comment anyway and tell me! I’ll try harder next time.