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.