Prime Meridian

Author: Kirsten K., Wellness

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.

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Maria from GentleWhispering describes ASMR and demonstrates some common triggers in this welcome video on her YouTube channel.

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.

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Viewers flock to Heather Feather for her large library of ASMR videos. Her Ultimate Head and Scalp Massage has me floating on air.

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.

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Cutebunny992 pulled a rabbit out of her hat with this magical role playing video that causes tingles to materialize and stress to disappear.

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.

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A sprinkle of pixie dust from Fairy Char casts a spell as she uses a binaural microphone to give viewers a virtual “braincase” massage.

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, click here.


Colorful Characters

Author: Kirsten K., Books, Literature

When Dressgate went viral back in February, it ignited a discussion about perception across the Internet. People were realizing that the world as they see it does not always match the way others see it. I learned this lesson several years ago when I discovered that most people do not perceive something very basic the way I do. I have grapheme → color synesthesia, which is a fancy way of saying that I see letters and numbers in color.

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A B C, it’s easy as…red, blue, green. My synesthetic alphabet.

Grapheme → color synesthesia is the most common form of synesthesia (“union of the senses”), which means that some of you reading this post likely have it. If so, you probably also thought it was normal and not worth mentioning to anyone for much of your life. When I finally started talking to people about it in my 20s, nobody I spoke to had ever heard of such a thing, but in January of 2002 I happened to catch a segment on 60 Minutes II called A Sixth Sense and everything fell into place. Finally, I had a name for this condition and realized that others were having a similar experience. While I see letters and numbers in color, some synesthetes taste words or feel music as a physical touch on their skin.

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This box of crayons is “Patient Zero” in the development of my condition.

I’ve read repeatedly that synesthesia runs in families, but nobody in my extended family seems to have it. Although many of the colors I see can be traced to a large box of Crayola crayons that my sister and I shared as children, she did not acquire the condition. This was about the time I was learning to read and write, so I’m certain that the association between letters, numbers, and colors was formed during this crucial phase of development.

People are often confused when I say that I see letters and numbers in color, and I find myself at something of a loss to explain. I can see the actual color of these gray letters against a white background as I type, but the individual colors are there too. It’s a mental overlay, and yet that is too simplistic an explanation. More than just seeing with the eyes or with the mind, it’s a knowing. I somehow know that 8 is red and S is dark blue. It’s strange to contemplate that other synesthetes see these numbers and letters differently. How could 5 be anything but purple?

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These numbers are colorful characters in both senses. Each has a personality.

Aside from making the world a more colorful and interesting place, the primary benefit of having synesthesia for me has been in the area of memory. I find it easy to remember names, phone numbers, and dates, because of the color impressions they create. As a result, I have unintentionally memorized more than a few Social Security and credit card numbers over the years. I also love to look at license plates and street numbers as I drive or go for walks, because it’s fun to see all of the different color patterns.

Colorful Characters 4In the years since I first heard the term, synesthesia has become popularized through the TED Talk and New York Times Bestselling book Born on a Blue Day by autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who has several types of synesthesia. I encounter more and more people who are familiar with it, including one young woman who, as a child, physically saw letters and numbers in color before the experience became more of a mental perception as she grew older. Only recently, I discovered that other experiences I have always taken for granted are also forms of synesthesia: chromesthesia (seeing colors when musical notes and/or keys are being played), spatial sequence synesthesia (perceiving months and dates in space), and ordinal linguistic personification (associating numbers, days, months, and letters with personalities).

But I’m not going to get into the science of synesthesia here or expound on every little detail of my experience with it. I’d rather you take a moment to consider your own perception of everyday matters. You may find that your world has a richness beyond the norm and that you have something important to contribute to our understanding of the brain and consciousness so that we can all lead more colorful lives.

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Find out more about Daniel Tammet on his website. Born on a Blue Day can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.