Think of the sensation you feel when someone scratches your back or plays with your hair.
Now think of it occurring when you hear something as mundane as turning a book page, or experience something as simple as a friend applying your makeup or brushing something off your face. Weird, right?
That’s what I thought up until about an hour ago when I finally Googled the right words at the right time. And it’s actually not so weird at all. (Mostly.)
I first noticed it when I was really young. The “brain-tingling,” that is. That’s the only way I can describe it, and upon doing some research today, I’ve found that’s how most people describe it. It was triggered by anything from a classmate turning a textbook page at her desk next to me, to a family friend’s specific Rhode Island dropped rs, to the silence at Sunday Mass punctuated by microphoned syllables. I can only describe the visceral response this way: a kind of tingling beginning from what feels like the center of my brain, down, down, down the back of my head and neck, sometimes down my spine. Kind of like a shudder, but not the cold or scared kind. Just…a nice, calming feeling. Like being at the beach hearing the waves.
It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often enough that I thought it something specific to me, some odd perpetual sensory overload that I should just keep quiet about. Nobody else ever described experiencing this type of thing, so it must be me. Right?
Wrong. Today, in trying to describe the sensation to my sister for the umpteenth time, I found myself typing “tingling sensation in response to certain sounds” into my phone’s browser. And, lo and behold, there it was. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR.
Before you ask, there isn’t much science behind the subject, largely due to the fact that the term itself wasn’t coined until 2010. The Reddit ASMR board defines the experience as “a physical sensation characterised by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp. It is commonly triggered by soft or accented voices, personal attention, ambient sounds or watching people work silently, among others.”
The weirdness sets in with how ASMR has been appropriated. If you look up ASMR on YouTube, you’ll find a bunch of videos – sometimes even ASMR-specific channels – that feature 20-odd minutes of the camera subject blowing into the lens, making vague whispering sounds, etc. YouTube culture has added a kind of sexual component to it which, arguably for some people, is a factor. An entire culture, featuring YouTubers “roleplaying” characters that give the viewer specific “personal attention,” has emerged and given the ASMR community an association with sensuality that I don’t think is necessarily a requirement. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly not the exclusive ASMR experience. In fact, I find a lot of the videos to be quite uncomfortable to watch.
For me, it’s pretty much brain yoga. It chills me out like a cup of tea. Sometimes it happens in a group of my closest friends at a coffee shop as someone at the next table types on a computer; sometimes it happens when I’m entirely alone listening to Sigur Rós.
Unsure if you experience this phenomenon? Watch (or, rather, listen to) this video. On the outset it’s completely random (just a bit of styrofoam being crushed by a machine). But if it gives you the brain-tingles, then you’ll know.
If anything, understanding and honing your ASMR can help you relax in general. Once you find the kinds of sounds that relax you, you can even create ASMR playlists that help you go to sleep. But, be careful – as with most things, too much of it isn’t good. You might even become desensitized to it altogether.
Long story short: Yes, you could probably call ASMR a “braingasm” if the sensations for you are strong enough. Mostly, though, it’s just a way to chill out that some people don’t even know they can tap into.
I, on the other hand, have my childhood church’s crappy microphones to thank for my knowledge.
And thank you, ASMR, for existing, and validating that at least in this respect, I’m not crazy.