Have You Heard of ASMR Tingles? The Internet Calls Them “Head Orgasms”

Amelia Diamond | May 9, 2016

ASMR-Feather-Ear-Man-Repeller---3

The best feeling in the entire world, for me, besides sticking my hand straight down into a barrel of dried beans (very hard to find these days, by the way, probably because everyone likes doing this and the FDA realized it was, in fact, aggressively unsanitary) is having someone tickle the inside of my forearm.

The worst feeling in the entire world is when friends whisper in my ear. Oh my god I hate it so much. I hate the sound of whispering in general, actually. It’s so loud. It makes me want to punch someone.

(NY Mag’s Science of Us recently did a story on misophonia, “the hatred of sound,” which explained why I hate whispering and other things — found the title of my memoir! Science of Us also made a quiz called “How Irritable Are You?” so that accounts for the punching.)

On the complete other side of the spectrum are people who are not only not irritated by the sound of whispering, they love the feeling that comes from listening to it — so much so that it brings them to a near-meditative state. The relaxing, feel-good shivers they experience have been labeled autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. Or: “brain orgasms” if you’re good at SEO.

However, one expert I spoke with and a friend who has ASMR were both quick to point out that it’s not sexual.

The sensation is frequently described as tingles up and down the back of your neck, inside and around your scalp and down your spine. It is so dreamy that there is an entire online community made up of thousands of members dedicated to the production of or listening to ASMR-triggering podcasts and videos. (The page of one popular ASMR YouTuber, GentleWhispering, currently boasts 200,240,780 views.)

Plenty of publications have covered the phenomenon — Vice in 2012, The Washington Post in 2014; here we are in 2016 and there’s still not a ton of science surrounding ASMR. The reasoning for lack of research seems to lie in why I avoided science class in college: it’s confusing.

The Guardian’s Pete Etchells went on a kind of ASMR information quest after he watched the above video, noticed the lack of scientific support and wrote an article about it. In it, he quotes the authors of an ASMR research paper that, as of today, remains the only one published on the topic.

“ASMR is interesting to me as a psychologist because it’s a bit ‘weird’” says Dr. Nick Davis, [a graduate student at Swansea University when he published the research paper] now at Manchester Metropolitan University. “The sensations people describe are quite hard to describe, and that’s odd because people are usually quite good at describing bodily sensation.”

What ASMR-interested psychologists seem to be turning their focus toward are the mental health benefits. For their report, Dr. Nick Davis and his colleague Emma L. Barratt surveyed 245 men, 222 women and 8 individuals of non-binary gender, all of whom experience ASMR. Dr. Bavis and Dr. Barratt were able to identify four main categories of triggers:

– Whispering (75% of participants)

– Personal attention — like, no joke, a doctor’s appointment (69% of participants)

– Crisp sounds (64% of participants)

– Slow movements (53%)

– Repetitive tasks (34%)

This sounds like my actual nightmare. However!

Of this entire group, 98% “sought out ASMR as an opportunity for relaxation.” 82% used it to fall asleep at night, 70% used to to deal with stress and, back to that orgasm thing, a small 5% reported using ASMR media for “sexual stimulation,” although 84% “disagree[d] with this notion.”

Elana Fishman, entertainment editor of Racked.com and the friend I mentioned earlier, disagreed as well. “The sensation is entirely inside your brain, and sometimes down your neck. It’s not sexual. It’s relaxing, like the feeling after a massage.”

Fishman describes herself as someone who has always had anxiety, even as a kid, and for as long as she can remember, had trouble falling asleep. She discovered that she had ASMR in college by accident — she was watching a makeup tutorial that narrated specific steps in a slow, soothing voice when her head started to feel fuzzy. “I felt instantly relaxed.”

These makeup tutorials (along with styling and “haul” videos on YouTube) became the key to helping her unwind at night. “It’s like taking a sleeping pill,” she told me, “only way more pleasant.”

In fact, Dr. Davis and Dr. Barratt’s report notes that “many participants described additional details of seeking the effects of ASMR where other interventions, medical or otherwise, had been unable to assist.”

Dr. Craig Richard, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA, founder of ASMR University, said in an email to me that with appropriate clinical research, ASMR may someday be utilized by health professionals as helpful treatment for some individuals with anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, depression, and/or chronic pain. Which is fascinating and fantastic no matter how you feel about sound.

I guess the next question is: what about those of us who don’t experience ASMR? How can we get in on the fast track-to-zen action? (Elana Fishman said that’s the number one thing people ask her when they hear that she “has it.”)

We can’t, yet. To us, it still sounds like a bunch of loud-ass whispering.

But I’ll trade you arm tickles.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; SheBee earring, ring and cuff

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  • Cinamaron

    Oh man ASMR! I discovered I had it in the same way- by noticing how relaxed makeup tutorials made me feel (although how I progressed from that to discovering ASMR was a thing I don’t remember). I really wish it was something everyone could experience- it is so relaxing and soothing for me! Although interestingly I hate people whispering in my ear IRL but I like it in an ASMR video. I think maybe the experience is too intense when there is actually a person by you doing it.

    • Amelia Diamond

      wait so you have it too!

      • Cinamaron

        Yeah! It is great because it’s a really easy and effective way to relax. Personal attention, tapping, and crinkly noises work really well for me.

        • Amelia Diamond

          fascinating & you’re lucky

    • Tess

      I’m the same way! I love ASMR (and makeup tutorials, even though I don’t wear makeup), but oh god, people whispering in my ears *shudders*. I think the issue with IRL whispering is the warmth of someone’s breath on you. Ick. Especially if they catch you by surprise.

  • Robin

    I don’t have ‘the tingle’ my friend describes she feels when she listens to it. She says its like one of those head massage things that look like crazy thin robot fingers (how do I describe this). However, while watching it I can barely fight the urge to close my eyes so 8 outta 10 would use when can’t sleep in the future

    • Robin

      Ps after lurking for months this is my first comment! I <3 Man Repeller

      • Amelia Diamond

        Hi Robin!! Welcome to the Comments Club 🙂 Also I know what you mean, that head massage thing at Sharper Image!!

  • Interesting post! :”D

    Thanks for sharing!

    XX,

    Photography & Fashion Blog

    http://www.CHRISTINAKEY.com

  • Danielle

    This just makes me relaxed and sleepy but no tingling. Also weirded out because in the second video she says she really likes the shape of my ear?

    • Amelia Diamond

      she’s on the Compliment Diet!

  • MK

    my mom has been using this for the past few years to help her fall asleep at night and she said it has really helped. I’m a therapist and I’ve been telling some of my clients who have trouble sleeping to try this but I guess the way I describe it makes it seem creepy (“it’s like someone’s whispering in your ear but it’s relaxing TRUST ME it’ll work”) /they look at me like I should be in therapy (truuuuuu). maybe i’ll just send them this article.

    • MK

      wait also Amelia, my mom used to keep a container of dried split peas for me to stick my hands in when i was a kid. IT IS THE BEST.

      • Amelia Diamond

        uh wow your MOM is the best for doing that

        • MK

          tru she is kween

  • Rony

    There is a small reference to ASMR in an episode of High Maintenance that I always wonder if anyone else caught. (my husband has it, but I have misophonia – aka George Costanzitis. grrrr.)

    • Amelia Diamond

      george costanzitis hahah

  • Katherine Sargeant

    I study to ASMR sometimes, but I physically cringe whenever someone whispers in my ear IRL, probably because it’s unexpected and I make this weird posture because it makes a tingle go down my spine. Can’t do the gum chewing ones. I love the ones where they whisper affirmations! It weirdly helps with my confidence, even in the smallest way

    • Amelia Diamond

      that’s reason enough then, right!

  • Celeste

    Sorry wait, I’m caught on this–the most requested sound is gum chewing?! Oh man, that one’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.

    • Aydan

      agreed. That’s how I know this is def not me.

      • Amelia Diamond

        I KNOW. Same.

    • Rebecca Dawson

      I will say that watching ASMR videos can be completely different than experiencing something in real life. I have misophonia AND experience ASMR. I cannot. stand. gum chewing in real life, but it’s one of my favorite ASMR triggers if I watch it in videos. I’ve experienced this feeling since I was little and started googling it a few years before ASMR videos were on Youtube– when the community finally popped up it was so exciting!! Anyway, try a bunch of different people’s videos. Some don’t do a thing for me, and some are amazing. A lot of it just depends on the person’s voice or your personal triggers!

  • Lillian

    I still haven’t figured out exactly what triggers mine, I always just referred to it as “soft ears.” I got it in an interview once! Sooooo relaxed.

  • Karis

    It’s rare that I experience ASMR via sound. I usually get it when someone brushes the back of my head/nape of my neck or by watching massage videos. I love getting massages. BTW, Is that creepy?

    • Amelia Diamond

      not creepy!

  • Kelsey

    ASMR? It has a name?! This has been happening to me since I was a tiny, tiny child. I’ve never associated it particularly with relaxation, though I can spontaneously produce this sensation without stimulus. I guess if you flex the muscle long enough, it gets really strong.

    • Amelia Diamond

      yes! you sound just like the woman who spoke in this NPR podcast — Elana (quoted in the article) told me about it: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/491/tribes <– fast forward to Part 2 for ASMR

    • ankuchma

      I had no idea this had a special name. This explains a few of the quirky things I enjoy, namely the sound of someone writing with a pencil on paper…that is some hypnotizing shit! Also, as a kid, I used to watch this sewing show on public television almost purely for the ampified sound of the host pinning fabric together. This always seemed like some kind of non-sexual fetish to me, so it’s kind of interesting to know there’s a whole group of people who are similar!

  • Pia Hocevar Mucic

    these whispers are just annoying to me…like a mosquito buzzing in the night!

    Fash ‘n’ fudge

    Fash ‘n’ fudge

  • no! NOPE no way. I am in the misophonia crowd; I can’t handle sound. I hate noises and these videos are the worst!!!! It took me a really long time to figure out what I could listen to without getting annoyed or distracted. To relax I listen to binaural beats. It’s just constant solid sound. No crinkly, whispery, soft lips crap.

  • Tess

    I think a lot of people have experienced ASMR without even knowing it. When you were little did you love it when people brushed your hair, or did you play the game where someone spells out a word on your back? The pleasant feeling you got from those activities is ASMR. That’s what it feels like. When I watch certain ASMR videos, I experience the same sensation as someone brushing my hair or writing on my back, but without being touched. It’s all internal. Admittedly weird, but it feels so nice.

  • Heather

    I read about ASMR videos in an issue of Oprah a year or so ago. I also hate whispering and want to punch people if they make certain noises…crunching chips, chewing gum, slowly sipping coffee or tea almost in a slurping way. Anyway, I don’t watch the ASMR whispering videos, but I watch Psychetruth massage videos at night to help me fall asleep. There is usually music playing and the massage therapist talks in a normal voice, but I find it incredibly relaxing.

  • Natty

    omg, wow, full body tingles when i watch these videos. I didn’t know there was a name for this sensation nor did I know there were hundreds of youtube videos to help me summon it. definitely my new go-to trick to combat Sunday scaries

  • Ok so I completely KNOW the tingle that people are talking about, however, unnecessarily soft voices and slow speech are two of my ABSOLUTE biggest pet-peeves! It’s like I have the sensors, but they trigger the exact opposite feelings. I watched those two videos and not only was annoyed, but they literally made me nauseous and sent the same shivers up my spine and neck that being disgustingly checked out by a creepy person give me. Excuse me while I chug tea to get rid of the feelings. ?

  • I noticed I was a responder a while back but only sorted out what it was maybe 5 years ago? Totally converted. I’ve taken YouTube videos and made them MP3s to listen to when I’m stressed out. Absolute bliss! I’ve got a ton of triggers too, so it really depends on my mood what will work the best. And obviously not every voice works, you’ve got to find your groove!

  • Sophie Helen Spiegelberger
  • Kelly

    Completely off topic, but where is this jewellery from???

  • CannabisIsNotEvil

    Nobody calls them “head orgasms”…. just stop.

  • This explains so much for me. I cannot STAND mouth noises and now I can politely validate this issue to others as a literal aural attack on my brains.

    Related: Vetements is basically visual AND psychological misophonia. Vvvv irritating on a deeply primitive human level.

  • ib

    I just saw this article and as soon as I played the video I realized whispering and mouth noises make me crazy and irritated, the opposite of being relaxed and good tingly. Wow, never knew.

  • Chloe Borged

    I Love Asmr! But not Asmr’ists eating food…to me that’s just…ew

  • ASMR + Manrepeller?! My two guilty pleasures collide. ASMR took the place of my Ambien prescription years ago lol and now I know it all too well. It’s totally weird but completely effective for those who experience the “tingles”. I don’t necessarily describe the feeling as “tingled” but more so like a baby falling asleep to the tissue-trick. Oh, and if you want to see colorful tops + tunics designed by a person totally addicted to ASMR, you can see them here https://www.chicasual.com/ 😂