Jennifer Levesque illustration
Since I was a kid, I’ve experienced a weird phenomenon. It mostly happens when someone—often a stranger—offers close, expert attention, someone like a barber or a tailor. If generosity’s involved, say when someone teaches a hard-won skill just because they want to, the phenomenon happens yet more strongly. It’s unpredictable, though, and elusive.
It starts with a sudden tingling across the back of the scalp, a tingling that sometimes travels down onto the shoulders or even the legs. That leads to a strong sense of wellbeing, a sort of cerebral euphoria.
I used to think this made me a bit nuts—how can you even explain such a thing adequately, especially a thing triggered by elusive and interactive happenings?
But then there’s the Internet. Not long ago, I happened upon a reference online to ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. That very recently created (most accounts say around 2008) fancy handle means exactly what I just described. I may be crazy, but at least I’ve got lots of company.
It seems that the “discovery” of ASMR—or at least its status as a phenomenon shared by some unknown portion of the population—was completely a product of the Internet. That vast timesink also turns out to be capable of some novel ways of connecting people. It’s hard, probably impossible, to pin down exactly where and when the discussion began. The medical-esque moniker (though this is also a hard thing to know for sure) apparently came from Jenn Allen, who founded the site asmr-resarch.org. Chances are high that the first ASMR thread, before the term even existed, arrived via a forum or Reddit, the nearest thing we currently have to a sprawling hivemind. Topics and subtopics spread like tree branches there, and already the subject of ASMR has become entrenched and ever more specific.
You can see it in action still, often in the comments below a story like this one: someone describes what happens, and a “me, too!” effect kicks in. When that happens enough, you’ve got a meme on your hands. ASMR has gone so far now that national-level media outlets have covered it. It’s even been the subject of a This American Life story.
The online world offers a great benefit when you stumble upon something like ASMR—all those stories are still out there. No matter when you hop on board, you can explore the whole length of the train at your leisure. And that’s where things get pretty strange.
One of the weirdest aspects of ASMR is that, for a lot of people, a consistent trigger is watching that poofy-haired but wildly skilled painter who used to be on PBS pretty much all the time, Bob Ross. You know, he of the “happy trees.” Not something I share with these folks, but pretty interesting all the same. Ross may also be the non-ASMRist’s most normal route into this experience, because the rest, well, let’s just say if you are really into cranial nerve exams, this is your lucky day.
That’s because the online world, the ultimate feeder of unusual obsessions, has embraced ASMR with astonishing fervor. Not content to simply know that such things are shared, ASMR experiencers have set out to provide the experience to all who can feel it. Visit Youtube and you’ll find a stunning number of videos dedicated to producing head tingles. Those videos are often quite strange, and to those who don’t get ASMR watching them, they must seem like alien artifacts. Forty minutes of laundry folding, anyone? How about 20 minutes of incomprehensible whispering? And, yes, POV videos of simulated cranial nerve exams.
The people who produce these videos are called “ASMRtists.” There are already stars, those whose ability to produce the effect seems to work for many a watcher. There’s no particular common thread among them, either. There are men and women of many a nationality. Some of the biggest stars, as will surprise few, are attractive young women. Which brings us to the ever-present kneejerk pop culture reaction to such things: surely this is nothing but a particularly weird fetish, right?
The answer you’ll find, over and over, is a resounding no. That rings true with the experience. It is relaxation, not stimulation, euphoria, not ecstasy. Some insist on calling ASMR “headgasms,” but it doesn’t jibe with the pleasant reality.
So far, the scientific community seems to have no easy way to conduct studies. The phenomenon seems undeniably real, but the large number of triggers and the often-elusive moments that bring on the tingles mean there’s no foolproof way to approach the subject. Skeptics (though ASMR seems like a strange thing to be skeptical about) say it’s just goosebumps, or the music-induced chills called frisson. Some have posited that it’s a pleasure that, aeons ago, might have been experienced when undergoing that particularly primate ritual of shared grooming.
Maybe the science will arrive. In the meantime, there’s a huge community out there, unconcerned about the “what” so much as the “how.” ASMR has clear uses. It’s a fast track to relaxation, and, for many, a quick route to sleep. It can be trance-like and meditative. Me, I’m just glad I finally know what that weird feeling is.
I just hope I don’t get addicted to towel-folding videos.•
Do you get that tingly feeling?
Here’s the ASMR Research and Support site’s list of common triggers:
? Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
? Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
? Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
? Enjoying a piece of art or music
? Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner—examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
? Close, personal attention from another person
? Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back