I recently wrote about my experience with grapheme → color synesthesia. A couple of years ago, my friend Mika and I were discussing the condition and she told me about an odd sensory phenomenon (which she dubbed “little fingers, big tongue”) that she had experienced since childhood. She asked if I’d ever felt unusual physical sensations that might fall under the heading of synesthesia. I replied, somewhat sheepishly, that I had.
For as long as I can remember, whenever I observe a person deeply involved in something (e.g. playing an instrument, doing a routine task, demonstrating an activity) or hear the sound of certain voices, I feel a kind of pleasurable, tingling sensation in the back of my neck. It seems to originate from deep within my brain stem and radiates outward to the rest of my body, putting me in a somnolent, blissed-out state.
Last year, I happened to be watching an episode of Nightline that featured a woman whose YouTube videos were designed to trigger this exact sensation in her viewers. Once again, a news program had given me the name for my condition: ASMR—Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. The term was coined in 2010 to describe the euphoric sensation that many individuals experience in response to encountering particular stimuli.
Maria from GentleWhispering has achieved a large following on YouTube by filming herself engaged in role playing and making certain sounds—notably, whispering—that have been found to trigger ASMR. From the moment I heard her speak on TV, I began to feel the tingles in the back of my neck. I started watching her videos and discovered ASMR triggers that I never knew I had, such as tapping and various types of hand movements.
In those first few weeks, I spent hours on YouTube going from one video to the next. I was like a teenage boy discovering porn for the first time, but—though Kirsti accused me of having a fetish—there is nothing sexual about the sensations produced by ASMR. They have been referred to as “braingasms,” but the closest comparison I can make is the feeling you get when someone lightly tickles your back or plays with your hair.
Many self-described ASMRtists use a 3Dio binaural microphone, which provides crystal clear, ear-to-ear sound that can lead to major tingles. A large percentage of the videos are designed to help people go to sleep, but I have no trouble falling and staying asleep. In fact, I try to avoid watching ASMR videos before bed, because I’m unconscious within minutes and can miss out on some choice endorphins.
GentleWhispering may be the grande dame of ASMRtists, but there are several up-and-comers who are making waves—and tingles—with their innovative videos. To an outsider, though, some of these videos can seem either mind-numbingly boring or totally bizarre. Even as I’m riveted by watching someone stroke stacks of fabric or pretend to examine my ears, I’ll occasionally think to myself, “This is deeply weird…and so are you.” But then I return to my regularly scheduled programming. When people ask me if I’ve seen the latest season of The Walking Dead or Orange Is the New Black, I respond, “No, but I just binged-watched all the episodes of Heather Feather, Cutebunny992, and Fairy Char.”
Unlike synesthesia, it is believed that anyone can experience ASMR, which may explain why these videos have exploded in popularity over the past couple of years. (Proof that ASMR has gone mainstream is this hilarious spoof that Daniel Tosh made for a recent episode of Tosh.0.) If you haven’t experienced ASMR for yourself, give it some time and view different types of videos to discover if there are triggers that work for you. I often get my best tingles after watching for 20 minutes or more, and a video that works one day can be less effective on another, so I like to skip around.
While I no longer watch for hours on end, I try to indulge on a regular basis to keep myself sane and stress-free. I now consider ASMR videos to be an essential part of my wellness regimen. With thousands of videos online and more being posted every day, you’ll often find me staring raptly at my computer screen—but if you want to get my attention, remember to whisper.
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To learn more about 3Dio binaural microphones, visit the company’s website.