A few months ago, I was looking on YouTube for scalp massage tutorials, as one does, and I clicked on this one that turned out to be a very quiet person pretending to give me a massage.
I didn’t think it was so strange, because I had already noticed lots of people watch massage how-tos in order to relax. I suspect that just watching a massage video gives you some of the physical benefits of massage, as you imagine the sensation of the touch that you’re seeing.
I figured this video was intended to be calming as well, and it was. It also gave me the feeling I get once in a great while, and got more often as a child: like tingles on the brain, accompanied by a warm feeling in the heart and a sense of well-being. When I Googled ASMR, I learned it stood for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a term invented to describe just this feeling (or close enough–the warmth in the chest I experience may not be very common).
One of the most memorable times I experienced this as an adult was when I visited a Buddhist temple in a Chicago suburb to interview one of the monks. He spoke very quietly and gently about the history of Buddhism for over an hour, and while I didn’t track everything he was saying, I had that strong, tingly response.
It had never occurred to me to seek out this sensation on purpose, mainly because I experienced it so rarely, but a lot of people have identified common triggers, which include: someone speaking slowly and softly or whispering; having your hair cut, brushed, or played with (which can also cause goosebumps, but that’s a different phenomenon); having someone pay close, personal attention to you in general; and a variety of other aural and tactile triggers, such as the fingernails tapping on the brush near the beginning of this next video. I think this one is particularly good for creating tingles, by the way.
As in sexual fetishes, people’s triggers vary. Some people get ASMR from gum-chewing or the sounds of eating, which gross me out. Some get a very strong sensation from watching someone else do something repetitive or in a methodical way, like mow a lawn, count coins, or washing a car, which would never happen to me.
Most of the ASMR content features young women, maybe because a female performer makes both women and heterosexual men feel comfortable enjoying the videos in all their slow, intimate weirdness. I wonder if ASMR is often triggered in children by their mothers speaking softly to them–not that a father couldn’t have done the same, but mothers have more often filled the caretaking role. If this were the case, a female voice might be more effective in inducing the same kind of tingles.
However, there are a few dudes, like this guy playing a doctor.
What’s actually going on in the brain or nervous system that creates ASMR? A rush of dopamine, seretonin, both? As far as I can tell, nobody has any idea. Until recently, lots of people thought they were the only ones who experienced it. I assumed everyone did, which isn’t the case either. Maybe because I associate it so strongly with childhood, I feel like it’s a very primitive response. It seems to originate at the back of my head, close to the spine, but maybe that subjective sensation has nothing to do with what’s really happening in my brain.
Whatever it is, it seems like experiencing it is good for my mental health, at least in the short term. I feel less anxious, calmer, and happier for hours afterward.
Of course, I might feel that just from the emotional content of the videos: the simulation of someone being kind and attentive. I think some people watch the videos just for that aspect, and because they find them relaxing. Many of the clips focus on getting to sleep.
For someone who does not experience ASMR, some of the YouTube content might seem truly bizarre. Why does this twenty-minute video of someone’s hair getting brushed have 60,000 likes? When I showed the first one to a friend, her first thought was, “This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen,” and then she got the tingles.
I’m curious about a lot of things here. If I watch ASMR videos a lot, will it make me less, or perhaps more, likely to feel that response? Will it rewire my brain in some way?
Would it be possible for me to adopt a more soft, soothing speaking voice, and would that be more emotionally healthy for the people around me? For myself? Or would it actually drive everybody up the wall?
If you want to delve into ASMR videos to see if they make you feel the chills and/or just chill out, you might want to use headphones to enhance the experience. And for God’s sake, be wary of videos by EphemeralRift. I think he is talented, but a few of his pieces are intentionally terrifying.
I’d love to hear whether other people have experienced the tingling, euphoric response, and if so, when?