A neurotic (Scout) on the closest she’ll get to an out-of-body experience or superpower.
It’s difficult to describe the sensation I experience when I listen to someone whispering. Every hiss or sharp “t” sound sends a new tingling, shivering wave around the crown of my head. My hair stands on end. It’s like being massaged by tiny cold inside your skull. I feel as if I’m sinking into a vat of milk and honey. My nerves are bubbling and sparkling like champagne. I emerge like Bathsheba from her rooftop bath, like Venus from the waves, like a child from the womb, like a hand from a kidskin glove. It’s a blissful feeling. It’s not quite arousal, but rather an intense, pleasurable relaxation.
You feel like Super Mario looks when he gets an invincibility star.
I’m talking about the little known phenomenon of Auto-Sensory Meridian Response (also known as attention induced head orgasm, attention induced euphoria, and attention induced observant euphoria). ASMR describes a distinct tingling in the head, scalp and peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory and cognitive stimuli.
Those who experience ASMR react to different “triggers”. Some are more responsive to sound, others to vision. One of the most common triggers is softly-spoken or whispered speech. But all ASMR hinges around attention to detail. Often videos simulate situations that can trigger ASMR in real life, such as haircuts, a visit to the doctor’s office, origami, sorting beads, ironing or untying knots. In my experience, the best ASMR is achieved when someone completes a small task to perfection.
In an online world characterised by immediacy, ubiquity, and multitasking, enormous numbers of people seek finding intense pleasure in videos where barely anything happens. ASMR restores order to your immediate surroundings, making you feeling safe and protected.
There is little in the way of conclusive science to explain ASMR. No studies, no ECGs or MRIs. Nevertheless, Yale Neurology Professor Steven Novella is “inclined to believe” that it exists. “It’s similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.” David Huron, Professor at the School of Music at Ohio State University, says that “The [ASMR] effect is clearly strongly related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention,” says Huron, who notes that there’s a strong similarity to physical grooming in primates. “Non-human primates derive enormous pleasure (bordering on euphoria) when being groomed by a grooming partner.” Primates groom each other not to get clean, but to bond.
Thousands of people have used ASMR to wean themselves off medication for anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am one of them. But Dr Amer Khan of the Sutter Neuroscience Institute says that ASMR just substitutes one dependence for another. “Like a baby who has to have a pacifier in the mouth to fall asleep.” But I have found that I can easily calm myself down even by knowing that I have a few recordings on my phone that I can listen to at any time. It’s an effective method of restoring external order when you’re experiencing internal chaos and confusion.
The first mention of ASMR – a neologism – was in 2010 with the creation of ASMR Group on Facebook by Jennifer Allen in response to a SteadyHealth forum on the undocumented sensation. Since then there has been a burgeoning community of ASMR enthusiasts. They create and share videos ostensibly made to induce ASMR. These ASMRtists or whisperers tap their nails, fold paper, whistle between their lips, breathe, stroke and soothe their subscribers. Each movement is gentle, light and controlled. They are crafted to a winning formula that has earned YouTubers such as GentleWhispering, SOUNDsculptures, WhisperCrystal, and MassageASMR thousands of subscribers. And that’s just scratching the surface.
But sometimes you happen upon a particularly mind-numbing and softly-spoken tutorial on nail care that unintentionally produces that tingling feeling. These often find their way to the archives of SootheTube [insert hyperline, SootheTube: http://www.soothetube.com%5D, which has an entire page devoted to programs by Bob Ross, an American painter who hosted The Joy of Painting in the 1970s, when he would reproduce meticulous landscapes, narrated with a soothing, soporific voice akin to Mister Rogers. The late Bob Ross was one of many internet friends who got me through a period of intense anxiety during my final year of high school.
Anybody can feel frisson, a sudden, strong chill going down your spine at a sudden radical change in music. Only some people experience ASMR, which is stronger, lasts longer and its guaranteed to deliver pleasure.* But if you’re only a mere mortal that doesn’t get a “braingasm” when you watch someone assembling a model train, then here are a few songs guaranteed to get you as close as you can get. So tune your audio thisaway when preparing for your next exam/date with your significant other’s parents/library encounter after having left your copy of “The Blind Assassin” in a taxi from Richmond to Carlton/supermarket expedition.
(This article was originally written as part of a submission to RookieMag for their August theme Thrills & Chills.)
*Sponsored by Durex.