So I've been working on some pretty weird stuff lately, yet this may be a more embarrassing topic to write about. For some percentage of readers, this article could make a major positive impact on your life. For the rest, I'll come away looking like a total wacko. I'll take those odds.
Despite the very official-sounding name ascribed to it, there is no science to prove the existence of the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. We have no idea what percentage of people have the ability to experience it, where it comes from, what it's for or what brain mechanics are involved.
But if you're lucky enough to be able to feel it, there's a growing and thriving community out there producing thousands of free samples of canned pleasure and relaxation.
Let me start from my personal experience. As a schoolboy, I had a particular French teacher whose voice would put me into a trance. As soon as she started talking, it felt like my brain would start tingling. Her measured cadence and accent felt almost like some sort of mind massage. It was incredibly relaxing – and felt amazing, almost like an audio version of one of these:
I started to notice that certain voices and accents would give me these "braingasms" as I started to call them, and if I stumbled across the right voice I'd turn to jelly. I remember keeping one poor telemarketer on the phone for ages, just asking her to keep repeating herself as I melted into a pool of sheer relaxation.
An old girlfriend and I discovered that we could create a similar effect by softly crunching ice cubes in each others' ears – something about the sound would give us goosebumps all over. It was fantastic, but I never really thought much more about it, until I stumbled across this T.M. Lewin video about suit fitting on Reddit.
Now, I need all the help I can get with fashion, but this video made my head buzz so hard I couldn't concentrate. I watched it three times, then went into the comments section and somebody had left a link to /r/asmr, a community of others that experience these relaxing head tingles in response to a wide array of stimuli. I was not alone. In fact, there seems to be quite a lot of us.
Since then, I've been watching a vast array of long and otherwise incredibly boring videos specifically designed to produce the ASMR response. Most people I've mentioned it to have no similar response at all, and can't imagine why I'd sit and bliss out to an 18-minute video of a Russian girl folding towels, or a Greek girl waving her hands in my face, or somebody tapping their fingernails on a wooden box.
You can probably begin to imagine why this is kind of an embarrassing hobby – I'm 36, male, bearded and known mainly for my love of super-fast motorcycles. And yet my brother catches me, asleep, with my phone on my chest and a video still playing. It's a woman whispering softly to me as she pretends to give me a makeover. Not cool.
But for those of us that feel it, it's so refreshing, soporific, hypnotic and addictive that we've just got to go hunting for more of the good stuff.
And there's others. It's odd, in that each person is looking for the right person, with the right voice, doing the right things, even using the right microphones, to get them going – and what switches some people on can actively ruin the experience for others.
ASMR is experienced in different ways, but predominantly as a tingling sensation in the head and scalp area that may extend down the neck and limbs. There is sometimes a trance-like state involved, and it's often coupled with an intense feeling of relaxation.
ASMR aficionados make a distinction between ASMR and frisson, the goosebumps and tingles that can be produced by an amazing piece of music.
It seems to be possible to build up an immunity to the ASMR feeling, particularly if you indulge in too many videos, but it also seems that you can get the feeling back if you take a break for a while.
Others look further back in our evolutionary development, proposing that perhaps the sensation goes back to our roots as primates, a sensory reward for submitting ourselves to nit-picking and grooming by other members of our groups.
Either way, I don't believe there's any current research being undertaken even to prove the existence of the effect, or study what the brain is doing during ASMR tingles.
Some of the bigger names in the field, such as GentleWhispering, TheOneLillium, ASMRrequests and EphemeralRift go to almost comical lengths to create the right atmosphere in each video. Because expertise and demonstration of knowledge in a field can be triggers in and of themselves, you'll often see ASMR videos for which these guys have put in a lot of prior study and preparation.
As videos can easily get up beyond the 40 minute mark, it's clearly a huge investment of time and energy – and yet, time and again you'll see ASMRtists (particularly the really good ones) disappearing from YouTube due to harassment and creepy messages.
You can kind of understand why. To people who don't experience ASMR, the videos can rightly look completely ridiculous. Also, because a sense of intimacy can be a very powerful trigger, it's no surprise that some of the best artists are very attractive girls, and there's clearly some personal security risks when you're putting your face out there and developing strange online relationships with people who might start to rely on a false sense of intimate connection with you.
Thanks to the ASMRtists above for allowing us to use their videos. Each of them has a YouTube channel chock full of relaxation and ASMR material. Here's some other resources if you find yourself tingling (or find it helps you sleep) and want to pursue it further:
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