ASMR: The Condition Nobody Is Talking About, But A Lot Of People Have
For 24 years, I never had an explanation.
When I was a young boy, I used to think I possessed a magical, intuitive sixth sense.
Each time I encountered a particularly calm or soft spoken person, like my doctor or barber, my scalp and the back of my neck would spontaneously tingle. Certain voices or sounds would trigger this sensation — like warm salt pouring onto my head and spreading softly down to my neck and shoulders and even my hands. I assumed this feeling must mean something. What I settled on was that it was a signal telling me I had encountered a truly genuine, trustworthy person. Teachers, cashiers, the elderly, and almost anyone with an accent were apparently the most authentic people out there.
What I only discovered a few weeks after my 24th birthday is that this sensation wasn't a unique or magical spidey-sense, but an experience many people across the world are familiar with — some completely unaware, as was I, that they have Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.
Clark Russell, a 31-year-old from Anchorage, used to think he was communicating with God.
"I always associated it as a religious experience, and that everyone who kind of shared my religious background was familiar with it," Russell said. Learning that he wasn't communicating with a divine spirit but rather experiencing something many other people have experienced shook the foundation of his belief system. "Because I thought a biochemical or physiological experience was God, I had to go back and think, 'what else do I think is God that maybe isn't?'" Russell added. "It was the first major crack in my faith, I went from being a protestant Christian to — now I would consider myself an agnostic Christian."
I too misinterpreted and misunderstood the sensation that would come from one-on-ones with teachers, my dog's claws scratching at the carpet, or a doctor checking my ears and throat for an infection. I have been Googling keywords from my ASMR experiences—which came about every few weeks—since I was 16. Through all that time I never came up with anything that indicated other people shared the experiences I was having.
Then a few weeks ago, while trying to describe it to someone I said, "it's like sounds that feel good." I realized I'd hit on the phrase to search. I Googled "sounds that feel good"—and voilà, there it was: ASMR.
The first thing that came up was a thread on the content sharing site Reddit filled with descriptions, stories, triggers and videos, all under the tagline "sounds that feel good."
As I read through Reddit's list of common triggers (slow speech patterns, clicking sounds, painting and drawing, close personal attention from someone, haircuts, Bob Ross and instructional videos), I was floored by a rush of memories that all so closely resembled these experiences other people were having.
One Reddit user with ASMR, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, described her experience watching the ASMR community evolve online. In the beginning, she said, people would just upload massage videos and drawings on YouTube without any real organization. "Now there are content creators and ASMR celebrities," she said. "There is a whole community now and it has become kind of monetized. I honestly don't understand how it's gotten as big as it has."
Indeed, content creators have exploded in popularity, some racking in millions of views on individual videos.
"You have to have thick skin when you make YouTube videos anyway, but I'd say that the ASMR community as a whole is just a genuinely positive community," said one enthusiastic content creator, who operates under the YouTube username The ASMRCast. "I don't get triggered while I'm making the video myself, it's more the editing process when I go back and watch that I trigger myself."
There are two kinds of people with ASMR: Type A, who are only triggered by external stimuli and certain interactions; and Type B, those people who can trigger themselves. Some people, like Russell, insist they can switch from Type A to B.
"I kind of try to create this feeling of opening up, maybe how a Buddhist would release their thoughts," Russell said. "When I do that, that kind of starts the ASMR feeling in the back of my neck, back of my head, shoulders, scalp, spine. It's very transient, it doesn't last that long. I've got it to last, not more than a minute but maybe a minute, usually it's several seconds."
Despite an abundance of anecdotal evidence, there's not much hard science on ASMR. From the many people I talked to, one common thread has arisen: almost everyone spent years keeping these experiences to themselves for fear that they were alone before stumbling across ASMR, often by chance. Part of the reason for the growth of the ASMR community is that The Washington Post, This American Life and Dr. Oz have all helped put ASMR in front of the public. Still, there are no published research studies, and the best any scientists can do is compare it to migraine headaches.
"We know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history," Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale said in a 2012 blog post. He also theorized that the triggers for ASMR all activate the same networks in the brain, and that it could be some kind of tiny pleasure seizure.
More information may be on its way, though. According to The Washington Post, Bryson Lochte, a Dartmouth College undergrad, has used neuroimaging technology to take a deeper look into ASMR for a senior thesis, but his results have not been published. Along with the popular Reddit thread, ASMR research surveys have been launched, support websites exist, celebrities have discussed their experiences and musicians like Deadmau5 have even released music tracks that sample the work of popular ASMR content creators.
For now, people like me will have to continue to connect and learn about ASMR through blog posts, preliminary studies and mini-communities like the ones that exist on Reddit. But as awareness of ASMR continues to spread and more people with ASMR come out of the woodwork, it will undoubtedly raise the profile of this mysterious phenomenon, perhaps enough to attract the attention of more serious research.