Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
A few months ago, I was watching a man thread a string through a small button hole. “Now, if I could just get this end through, I’d be all set,” he said. He was a few feet from my desk. As I looked on, a soft, tingly sensation began to build across the back of my head. Then, like a light wave, the pleasant needles spread further across my scalp. I stared at the thread, how his fingers were maneuvering it, the quiet sound of his voice as he patiently described what he was doing. I've never had the words for it though I've felt it many times since I was a child. It’s a familiar feeling – a calm, relaxed state of bliss centered on my head and sometimes spreading to my shoulders. As the man walked away from me, the good feeling receded like a warm, buzzing tide. I was a little disappointed but felt certain it would happen again. Sometime.
I have Autonomous Meridian Sensory Response, or ASMR, and I’m not alone.
ASMR is a pseudo-scientific term first coined in 2008 on an Internet forum. It refers to the feeling of pleasurable head tingles caused by visual, auditory, or cognitive triggers. In layman’s terms, a good head feeling caused by weird and random stuff. There aren’t figures of how many people experience ASMR or many studies done about why some of us get it — theories run from synesthesia, harmless epileptic seizures, or nothing. That’s because it’s hard to manipulate in a lab setting. And, it’s difficult to define because all ASMRers feel the same physical sensation, but we're all set off by different triggers.
I first got ASMR long before I knew what it was. It happened at school, when a teacher would lean over my desk, point to my paper, and explain something to me. I just thought I really liked learning — a lot. It happened randomly and I could never predict it. It was much different than normal chills and much better. It wasn’t until last year when I stumbled upon an amazing article on the topic that I learned what I had was ASMR — the good feeling nobody can explain.
Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
I immediately joined an ASMR group on Facebook and read through the testimonials. A man’s story about getting head tingles from observing a janitor mopping his school made me grin. It would seem bizarre to anybody that has never felt that kind of sensation, but as I read his and other stories, I could totally relate. It's odd to derive such intense physical pleasure from mundane practices, like someone tying their shoes or stacking erasers, but I had stumbled upon a group that commiserated. I loved having ASMR.
The Internet is replete with "triggers," an eclectic collection of videos tagged “ASMR” meant to set off the tingling sensation, many garnering hundreds of thousands of hits. Amongst the videos are men and women whispering into the camera, simulating spa days, giving mock interviews, tapping on books, and crinkling plastic packages (to name only a few). Most of these are first-person role-playing videos, attempting to recreate the experiences in our daily lives of personal care — an intimate, soothing moment where attention was paid to us.
ASMR has taken off particularly in the YouTube and Reddit communities (with 54,000 subscribers on Reddit). There are open forums where users can share and discuss the videos, feeling free to broach a topic they may normally shy away from amongst friends. It’s almost taboo. Because really, how can you describe such a tremendously good physical sensation when not everyone can relate? There's something almost sexual to it and it’s set off by things people might think are really, really strange.
With nicknames like “head orgasm” and a group of devout fans that produce and view tons of videos in order to feel physical sensations, it’s reasonable that some people could conclude that ASMR is sexual. But, it is not, and that might be the most complex aspect of it.
It sounds inherently fetishistic, sharing similar qualities to porn — different user-selected stimuli, triggers working for some people and not others, videos of gazing eyes up-close, speaking in soft whispers, and making subtle mouth sounds. These videos are all driving towards the same euphoric feelings for their viewers. And, that’s what’s hard for an outsider to comprehend: people are hunting for this euphoria, and yet, it’s not orgasmic. “Whatever works for you, works for you. Just see what’s out there,” one YouTuber called JustAWhisperingGuy claims on one of his videos. If the ASMR community has anything in common with the fetish community, it’s a complete lack of judgment. You are accepted here.
Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
My only problem (and it’s not even a problem, really) is that none of the trigger videos have worked for me. I’ve only ever been able to experience ASMR from real-life stimuli. I’ve stared deep into the brown eyes of a woman giving me a mock doctor’s checkup, listened as a pretty blonde whispered in my ears with a 3D microphone, and watched an “unintentional” video of Bob Ross paint as he described the brush strokes, but nothing has set off my good feeling.
I wanted to learn more from someone who actually could use the videos and got in touch with my friend, Ani, a 25-year-old woman who watches approximately 30 minutes of trigger videos a day. She said I wasn’t the first person she had heard of that couldn’t get ASMR from a trigger video — some people need it to happen organically. She described watching a trigger video: “For me the sensations usually start within seconds. When I watch a long video online, the tingles typically come in waves. Once I've been triggered, I am in a state of relaxation with a slowed heart rate and breathing, and the strong tingles intensify or wane depending on what is happening in the video.”
People trigger ASMR for their own reasons, some to sleep and some to bliss out with a natural high. “There's a lot about the community that's just about us searching in a collectively created space to take care of our own ‘me time.’” Ani concluded, “Content creators provide so much out of the goodness in their hearts and their free time, and it's definitely reaffirming.”
Most of all, the ASMR community and the physical and cognitive experience of ASMR is all about the sense of inclusion; what it feels like to have someone look at you, speak to you softly, and make you feel attended to in some way. To re-experience the feeling of our parents crouching down towards us and telling us a secret, providing a sense of safety and specialness — that embracing feeling of human connection. So, now we use our anonymous usernames online to connect with a group of people that are trying to deliver a sense of warmth and calm in the era of human disconnection, dispensing it for free and in goodwill. A group of people saying, “Come on in. We understand you. We’d like to make you feel good for no reason at all.”