ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. According to the Wikipedia page, the term was coined by cybersecurity professional Jennifer Allen in 2010, and is now the accepted term for the experience. Though to be sure, people have been experiencing ASMR for much longer than that.
I myself have always had it. I do not remember the first time that I experienced ASMR, but I do remember the moment when I first linked it to whatever I was watching at the time. I must have been in either first or second grade, because I remember being in the classroom, on the little rug where there were some toys, and to be honest, I don’t know exactly what I saw that was the trigger. Maybe it was another student playing with blocks, or maybe it was my teacher. In any case, I remember feeling that familiar tingly sensation that started in my scalp, maybe at the base of my skull, then went down my body and flushed over my entire head in a wave-like sensation, and I just stood there, rapt, transfixed by what I was watching and what I was feeling. I remember at the time that the feeling was familiar, but that this was the first time I noticed it being triggered by something outside of myself.
Over the course of my life, I have encountered this feeling, seemingly at random. One time, it occurred while watching an older man count coins on a counter in a store where I was working. I could have been annoyed at how long it was taking him to count the coins, but instead, I felt like I was having a secret, private, pleasurable experience, so I did not mind at all. I would get the feeling while watching people write checks (when checks were more common). And I read about it one time in a Margaret Atwood book. It might have been Alias Grace, but I am not certain. What I know is that I read a passage where she describes the main character, a female, watching someone write with a quill pen, and the sound of the pen scratching on the paper gives her a sensation like “a thousand butterflies” landing on her scalp. And I thought, Aha! That’s it! That’s my feeling! And it is very much like that. It is gentle and tingly, and you just don’t want to move, because you don’t want to disturb the butterflies. You just want the feeling to pour over you.
I have known about the ASMR videos on YouTube for a few years now, but I have been avoiding them, because I actually like the random, unpredictable nature of when the feeling will show up. I don’t necessarily want to control it. I like the element of surprise, which makes it seem even more pleasurable.
The only reason I went to watch any of the videos was because of this piece I read on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog about recent research on ASMR. Curious, I decided to follow some of the links. And Whoom! There they were. Tinglies all over. I watched two or three videos, my little nervous system getting flooded by ASMR. My entire day was put into a buzzy haze of relaxation, even when I wasn’t getting ASMR. I watched probably two more videos before falling asleep, and figured that this would just be my life from now on — going from activity to activity, just waiting for my downtime when I could get a new hit of ASMR. I wondered if it would be like a drug for me and if I would become an ASMR junkie of sorts.
Well, that question has been answered, because after the initial “rush,” the videos just aren’t “doing it” for my anymore. I have watched several more, and I am aware of the triggers that normally might give me the response, but instead, I just find myself watching the video. I’ve gotten some “almost” tingles that begin in the usual way, but don’t quite spread to that all-over relaxation feeling. Perhaps I am thinking too much about it. Perhaps I am too aware of exactly what the “ASMRtists” are doing, and I know that they know what they are doing, and it breaks the magic, somehow. It is no longer random, surprising, intimate, or special. Instead, it is social, public, well-known and commodified. These artists, and their advertisers, are making money, commodifying my personal experience. On some level, I think I am aware of this, and my body goes into opposition mode, shutting the feeling down before it happens. But the videos are still relaxing. Sometimes I watch them anyway, just to see if maybe, a tingle will happen. But most of the time, they don’t do anything anymore. I guess I don’t like my ASMR on demand.
Let’s be clear about one thing: watching an ASMR video is not the same thing as “watching ASMR.” You can’t really “watch” ASMR. If you did, it would probably require hooking a person up to an fMRI (functional MRI) machine and watching their brain patterns while they experienced ASMR. Or it might mean watching a person who is having an ASMR experience, which would likely be pretty boring. They would probably look a little zoned out, but they could also just be walking down the street. You might not know that they were having any special experience at all. Although I bet there is an ASMR-type facial expression. Like an O-face, but let’s call it an “A-face.”
Many people like to make a point of insisting on the separation of ASMR from sexual experience. And this is true. And yet…while it has literally nothing to do with your genitalia or any kind of sexual feeling, there is something vaguely almost-sexual about it. Not really sexual, but sensual, for sure. And the term I always used to describe it in my mind was “head-gasm.” I’ve never said it out loud, but that’s always how I thought of it. Like an orgasm, in the way it spreads, and in the way it builds, and then there is usually a “point of no return” where the feeling washes over you, and you just have the experience, and there almost is nothing else, just for those brief moments. But the sensation of ASMR is more centered around the head and scalp. Then, for me it usually spreads everywhere, and then returns to the scalp. It is extremely luscious. But it is NOT an orgasm. It is just LIKE an orgasm.
And yeah, admittedly, watching ASMR videos looks and feels a lot like watching porn sometimes. It is clearly not porn. And yet, there is this anonymous person, who is doing certain particular things on camera, with a microphone, intending to cause a certain physiological response in my body, in the body of a person they do not know. They are actors. Sometimes there is role-play. I kind of like the role-play videos, actually. They are sweet and sometimes amateurish, with a person just filming themselves from their living room. And the fancier ones might have a digitally-drawn background, but it still feels kind of low-budget, and that, too, reminds me of porn. Plus the actors in intentional ASMR videos are usually pretty visually appealing. But I don’t like that they know all my “triggers.” Even “unintentional ASMR” videos, where the original creator was not meaning to make an ASMR experience, is still posted by someone else with the intent of creating an ASMR reaction in the viewer. And something about that intent bothers me. I also don’t particularly like to watch porn, maybe for a similar reason — I don’t like a random stranger having any sort of say in what my body is doing at a given moment. Even if it is a moment of my own choosing. But I can see the appeal.
So, ASMR. Again, it is not sexual. But I would say, unequivocally yes, it is orgasmic-like in its nature, and it bears some similarities to sexual experience. One of those ways is in bonding. Many researchers have suggested that ASMR is related to grooming, in the way that animals will often groom each other. I wonder if animals experience ASMR, and perhaps that is why they are so docile and calm when another animal is grooming them. That is how I feel when I have ASMR, and it can sometimes come up when someone is doing something to care for me. This is one of the common triggers mentioned in videos, and a common theme in ASMR role-play (or RP). Sex and orgasms are also said to increase bonding by leading to a rush of oxytocin in the brain and body. I wonder if people who experience ASMR also get an increased level of oxytocin in their systems. I don’t think anyone has yet studied it, but if it could be true, then I think it would have some interesting implications.
So, for anyone who loves watching ASMR videos and gets “the tingles,” I think that’s lovely. Why not do something that can help you sleep or decrease anxiety? For me, I don’t think I want to have ASMR on-call, all the time. I like to find it like an “Easter egg” that life has left me; a special, solitary treat, just for me to discover, and which no one will ever know about.
And the last point I’ll make about ASMR is that apparently, researchers are interested in the link between ASMR and loneliness. That is, they want to know if it is effective at “relieving” loneliness. It might be. But my personal theory, based on my experience, is that it actually arises FROM loneliness. It could be worth testing, because I can’t speak for anyone else, but I happen to know that I had a pretty lonely childhood. For example, I made friends with trees and had conversations with spoons. Often, objects were more reliable than people, and I was a little bit starved for caring attention from the people who were supposed to be caring for me. As a consequence, I feel that maybe my nervous system developed this elaborate pleasure around any little bit of caring attention sent in my direction. It gave me a way to sponge up those little bits of care and concern that people probably didn’t even know they were giving me, so that I could feel “normal.” Or maybe it is not because of that. Perhaps it is an intrinsic property of some people’s central nervous systems, regardless of their experience. I would be curious to know.
However, I can attest that ASMR makes me feel more connected to people, even though one of the cardinal characteristics of the experience is that it is entirely personal and private to me, and even secret. It is something that is only for me. And so, that is one of the main reasons I don’t like ASMR videos. They are too public. I don’t like that my private experience is known and capitalized on, even if it has benefits for many people who love them. And I don’t like that Google and YouTube now know about this very personal, intimate thing that has always been “mine” in a world where privacy often was not something that I could claim. Maybe that, too, has put a damper on the sensation, at least for now.
In sum, I would say that I am honestly happy that this feeling/phenomenon is now being recognized and even studied. I think what researchers discover could tell us a lot about the human experience. But as far as the videos go…Maybe I overdid it. Maybe I “did” too much ASMR, and now my body is on overload. But also, I guess I would rather leave my ASMR to chance, and to find it where it arises, when I am not looking for it, just I always have, so that it can continue to be special, unpredictable, and only mine.
What do you think? Do you have ASMR? Do you like to watch videos for it, or what are your main triggers? How does it factor into your life? Please leave a comment below and keep the conversation going :)