ASMR. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. I'm going to talk about that for a little bit.
I used to have a writeup here called the burning in curiosity. It was one of the first things I wrote here. It didn't get a very good response, so eventually I took it down. I still have it as a Removed Draft. I won't repost the whole thing verbatim, but in it I described a particular sensation, a "warm tingling feeling you get at the temples and sides of your head ... which starts slowly, and gets warmer and warmer until you start paying attention to it, at which time it goes away like something flitting away out of your peripheral vision."
I've been having that kind of periodic tingling for as long as I can remember. I came to think of it as the physical sensation of being fascinated or intensely curious, because I would often get it as someone was explaining something to me or working with me to puzzle through some problem. I wonder sometimes if the pleasure I get from experiencing this sensation is the main reason why I became a knowledge worker.
I used to search Google for information about this feeling using phrases like 'tingling sensation on scalp'. I would get search results about head lice and dandruff, and I would slink away embarrassed, sometimes to take a shampoo-intensive shower.
A few years ago I tried one more time, and this time the first result was a Vice article titled ASMR, The Good Feeling No One Can Explain. The sensation I recognize was described in that article as "head tingles," and I knew I had found the thing I was looking for. The main thrust of the article was cultural anthropology, exploring an Internet subculture which had sprung up around YouTube and Reddit, starting with people trying to put a word to this peculiar experience, and moving on to share a catalog of things which made them experience the feeling, and eventually starting to make content intentionally designed to bring forth the feeling in others.
It's a random set of things. People whispering. People speaking in certain accents. People tapping on stuff. People crinkling cellophane. Certain words. Certain kinds of gestures. We don't know what this is, but we know it when we see it.
A few specific things at or near the epicenter:
- A PBS instructional television show called The Joy of Painting, hosted by a man called Bob Ross who loved to paint happy little trees.
- A woman on YouTube with an English accent who would point the camera at nothing in particular and whisper about whatever she felt like talking about, with the username whisperinglife. Her video channel is interesting; shortly before her long, near-permanent absence began you can see her begin to experiment with classic ASMR "triggers" such as tapping on wooden surfaces, while confessing that ASMR triggers don't do anything for her. Her subsequent abandonment of the platform felt more like causation than correlation.
- A demonstration recording for binaural audio, also on YouTube. Wear stereo headphones, close your eyes, and you have the startlingly realistic feeling of being in a barber shop being given a haircut by a gregarious man while his friend plays an acoustic guitar in the corner of the room. The recording uses carefully situated stereo sources designed to mimic the way human ears receive sound. It's eerie and cool and--for some people--tingly the first time you encounter it.
Not to digress, but binaural recordings of this kind have nothing to do with binaural beats. What I'm talking about here is a recording made by mixing two discrete microphone sources with an aim of making the resulting audio seem like realistically 3D sound when played back on headphones. The latter concept is the idea that when each of your ears hears a distinct tone, your brain will synthesize a tone between those two wavelengths, and you will hallucinate hearing that tone instead. This really happens and you can go experience it right now for the low low price of a YouTube search--but most of the search results will lead you to videos which promise you that the auditory hallucination you are going to experience has been carefully calibrated to have some specific drug-like effect.
I think this is probably complete hokum. I think it's a form of woo. As a fan of ASMR, I know more about woo content than I would like to know. I know what reiki is, for example.
Sorry, I got distracted for a second. Binaural just means that you have two ears and each one of them is supposed to hear something different but correlated. If you keep your head completely stationary, a cheap pair of stereo headphones can make the right audio feel credible in the exact same way that a cheap pair of 3D glasses makes the right film feel credible. Stuff like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have already made the next step for visuals. You can characterize this as a software algorithm which implements "stereoscopic x head-tracking." Similar advances are coming for audio; when we get them, the algorithm will be one which implements "binaural x head-tracking." Binaural beats are an interesting hack of the way our brains work, but they're an unrelated hack.
- Unboxing and demonstration videos, especially ones done with limited speech, accented speech, or foreign languages.
People started swapping links to these things, and talking about the specific parts which made them tingle. Some protested that the tingling wasn't connected to any content, it was a thing which happened independently of any outside stimuli. (The community eventually decided that there are two types of this sensation, an 'A' type which is self-contained, and a 'B' type which is triggered by something you see or hear or feel. I experience both kinds, but the 'B' type is more intense.) Some wondered if it was just another kind of frisson, the "chills" we get when we listen to moving music. Many argued about whether or not the feeling was in some way orgasmic. The feeling was given a name, ASMR, largely because an earlier label "braingasm" had seemed too sexual.
A few participants in these discussions started experimentally making videos of their own, and asking for feedback, and eventually buying binaural recording equipment of their own. Some of these videos started to go intensely viral, eventually earning hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of page views per video. As intentionally-triggering content became more popular, some viewers began to report that although they didn't always get a tingling feeling, they still found the content intensely relaxing, sometimes even falling asleep while watching the videos. The result, especially in the early days when the selection of content was still quite limited, was surprisingly high view counts due to repeat watching by individual viewers. These view counts are where Vice took notice. If you don't know what you're watching, the first time you see someone directly addressing the camera and whispering while they pretend to give you a haircut, you're going to experience something resembling horrified confusion. People began wondering aloud if this was some strange new form of pornography.
All this was years ago. As of this writing, the "ASMR community" is now divided into a couple of loosely-affiliated camps. The first, original camp consists of people who are still just trying to understand the sensation they enjoy feeling, they're sharing links to the things which make them experience the sensation, and speculating about what it is and why it happens. This kind of "we know it when we see it" activity has a lot in common with cool-hunting, with the found art scene, with Pinterest collections, and perhaps even with Everything2's votes and chings. These people are crowdsourcing the boundaries which define an emergent subculture.
The second camp in the community is composed of the artists and audience creating and consuming content which specifically and intentionally caters to that subculture. This group shares characteristics with many other types of online community: a fluidity between fan and artist; a focus on direct interaction between fans and artists both for feedback on art and for general communication; and a growing division between artists and their fans as the feedback becomes too demanding and the general communication takes on a darker tone. Many participants in the ASMR community are members of both camps, but there isn't an enormous amount of overlap between the activities conducted within each camp.
Communities which function as catalogs of ASMR content often use tagging mechanisms. There's a lot of debate about which tags should be used, but one is near-universal, and mostly binary: intentional vs unintentional. Unintentional content is only of interest to participants in the first group. Intentional content is of interest to both camps, but is more intensely interesting to members of the second camp. This makes sense to me; the content just doesn't make you feel good, it makes you feel grateful to the person who made it.
ASMRtists (as these creators have come to be called) experience the same difficulties as streamers, other kinds of YouTubers, and people who do camming, all stemming from something which has a clear financial incentive (ad revenue, sponsorship dollars, Patreon funding, and similar--much of which is rolled back into the content, for better recording equipment, props, costumes, and whatnot) but isn't quite like an actual profession. The fan-base, while mostly positive, has an underbelly which systematically harasses its celebrities, both sexually and in other ways. These are people who depend on a fairly direct new-media relationship with their fans, but have to operate under pseudonyms, earn a direct income from the attention of a group which trolls them, live in fear of being doxxed or stalked, and struggle with particular individuals within the fan-base developing unhealthy parasocial relationships with an online persona.
Many of the most popular creators are women, and women also seem to constitute a small majority in the viewing audience. There are a lot of theories about why this might be, and not much science around it. My own belief is that the brand of intentionally-created ASMR content which requires the performer to address the viewer through direct interaction with the camera and with a binaural microphone is about establishing a kind of nonthreatening intimacy. Men can achieve this, as Bob Ross and Mister Rogers both did, as did the male presenters/narrators of National Geographic specials--but men have a different set of challenges to overcome here. The art form is still emerging, and many of the men who are making content here are using a vernacular which has been developed largely for use by women. Even among female creators sometimes you'll see people misusing the vernacular, like doing "ear-to-ear whisper" videos while recording with a mono mic source. Over a long enough timeline, the genre can be expected to go from emergent to more fully established. By the time that happens, I suspect we'll see more men making more ASMR content using a more fully gender-differentiated idiom.
Others have different theories. Some wonder if ASMR content is hacking into the brain's oxytocin response--a response which is more greatly associated with adult women than with adult men, in part because of the role that hormone plays both in mother-infant bonding and in sexual pair-bonding. Regardless of the root cause for the response which we're learning to trigger, all kinds of content can be triggering. Some has no individual present on camera at all, and some certainly isn't about intimacy of any kind.
Anecdotal evidence: A couple of years ago my mother was hospitalized for a hip replacement and while she was in surgery, I needed to sit for hours in the waiting room. It was an anxious time and I had to be prepared to make the necessary emergency decisions about her health in the event that anything went wrong. So I was startled and confused when, during my time in that waiting room, I suddenly started to find myself very relaxed, and found that familiar warm, tingling sensation spreading from my temples down onto the back of my neck and across my upper arms. Eventually I realized that another person who was sitting a few rows down had opened a bag of Twizzlers and was trying to eat them without making too much noise, making a persistent but soft cellophane-crinkling sound.
What do you do in a situation like that? Staying and blissing out felt inappropriate, especially when I knew that it might make me fall asleep. Do I walk up to a total stranger and say "Excuse me, sir. My mother is in surgery right now and I feel like I need to remain worried and anxious, but I'm having trouble doing that because the sounds of your polite, tentative movements are giving me pleasure in a manner that I can't satisfactorily explain. Could you please eat your candy out of earshot, or at least eat it less politely?" I mean, I'm a grown-up, so I did what grown-ups do. I dealt. I'm just saying that whatever was going on that afternoon had nothing to do with personal intimacy.
I mentioned problems earlier; let's go through a partial list. Creepy dudes showing up in comments and sexualizing a nonsexual performance, giving timecode indexes to the exact point in the video where the performer shows a little extra cleavage or something. People of all ages and genders, but mostly dudes, demanding personal attention above and beyond anything appropriate, and allowing it to develop into stalking behavior. Rabid senses of entitlement which make these people attack the content creators for seeking or accepting any kind of donation or sponsorship. Doxxing, reposting of content, all manner of psyops manipulation. Just generally becoming a Person of Interest to 4chan users. It's a common arc for these creators, especially the women who show their faces on camera, to go from little-known to popular to vanished in the space of a year or two. Just like with Twitch streamers. Just like with cam-girls. Just like with any Internet celebrity who has a small measure of fame but lacks the resources or public face to obtain meaningful support from law enforcement, YouTube site administrators, or anyone else. Social media tolerates and perhaps even fosters a culture of harassment, and the people who make this kind of content are no stranger to that.
But there are some problems unique to this art form, too. These are people making content for an experimental purpose, finding out how members of the self-identified community will react to various stimuli, and occasionally making requests for suggestions. It should have come as no surprise to learn that many of these early content creators were approached by members of various fetish communities and asked to make content which, in the most charitable view, might have catered to both fetishists and ASMR fans in equal measure. A much less charitable view is probably a better one to take: This is a manner of exploitation that most Twitch streamers will probably never experience. There's a reason why few if any of the "ASMR medical role-plays" involve podiatry.
Exploitation aside, sometimes the community just eats its own. The half which are just interested in collecting triggering material have clashed with the half which are interested in honoring, protecting, and defending the people who create triggering material. There's significant debate about whether or not it's okay for one ASMRtist to perform a "trigger" which was innovated by another ASMRtist, especially without permission. Fans of one artist might attack another artist for "stealing ideas," to the point where the first artist has to step in and ask them to stop.
Russell Brand, who confesses (professes?) not to experience ASMR, did a lengthy video debating whether or not this content is simply a new form of pornography. One way of restating Rule 34 might be to suppose that everything is probably someone's fetish. But it's clear that this content isn't understood to be a fetish either by the people making it or by the people who are principally consuming it. Many of us have been experiencing the sensation since we were children, and are still just exploring a vocabulary which permits us to talk about it with others. But it does seem like a weird fetish to outsiders, and some people who experience these tingles actively dislike viewing content which intentionally triggers it. It's a sensation intensely associated with trust and intimacy, I guess it makes sense to me why someone might see content which tricks you into having those feelings as a kind of violation. And some triggers (lip-smacking, for example) elicit a misophonia response in a portion of the audience. This stuff isn't sex work but it's tapping into something which is more physical than it is either emotional or intellectual.
I'm personally reluctant to participate in either half of the ASMR community directly, which is why it's taken me until 2016 to write something here about this topic. The way I avoid being susceptible to parasocial interactions is by redirecting my interest in artists toward an interest in their art. I don't want to speak with the person who made something, I want to think about how what they made has changed me. Nor do I want to talk with others about which things in particular make me experience this sensation. It feels very private, and I feel like people can too easily get the wrong idea about why it interests me. Something like two thirds of my YouTube subscriptions are ASMR channels being made by women in their twenties, or sometimes significantly younger. That shouldn't embarrass me, but it does. I'm not there to ogle them, or interact with them directly in any way--but I assume that anyone who sees my subscription list will probably think otherwise at first glance.
In some ways this whole thing feels like a fad whose wave has already crested and broken. In others, it still feels like we're learning how to discuss the topic at all. That side of it fascinates me--I think we've accidentally noticed that it's possible to hack into a nonsexual pleasure response that we barely knew existed before. There are universities trying to figure out how to peer into a person's brain using MRI or similar tech while that person is experiencing this sensation. What deeper truths are we going to learn about ourselves because we started experimenting with this content?
Consuming the content has made me more alert to the way ASMR tingles have influenced my own feelings. There's a video of Fred Rogers testifying before Congress about the importance of federal funding to PBS. He leans toward the microphone, and in a gentle and soft voice, he tells sitting Senators that what he does is address children directly, trying to make them believe that he accepts and values them without judgment, and trying to teach them how to manage their feelings of anger. You can look at transcripts of this: a key senator on the committee responds to this testimony by saying that he just "felt goosebumps" and promised that PBS would get its funding because of it. I would bet all the money in my pockets that the Senator who made that statement had just felt ASMR and didn't have any vocabulary to articulate it. I view this episode in history as evidence documenting the existence of a sensation which, even when it goes unrecognized, has the power to shift government funding priorities.
The experience cuts across age, gender, native language, personal experience, religion, and numerous other boundaries--possibly even including species. (People have debated whether ASMR is related to social grooming in primates.) What exactly is the sensation, in most specific terms? Do we understand how someone who is able to bring that sensation forth in others might be able to do it for good or for evil? Can we look back and find cases other than the one I've cited of a time it was used for political persuasion? PBS funding is persuasion to a good end, but might we find cases where it was used for evil instead? Perhaps the hushed, dramatic whisper of a demagogue preaching from the rhetoric of hate might positively reinforce the message for an audience which can get the tingles.
These are the things I think about. In another venue, I once wrote that
I share my body with a chimpanzee that's confused because Minnesota isn't a savannah. Unless I'm paying attention, the chimp gets to drive.
That chimp likes this particular feeling an awful lot. I got that feeling often when parents or teachers or colleagues were standing behind me helping me puzzle out things like Boolean logic, algebra, how to pan-fry a steak, the alphabet, how to tie my shoe. I distinctly remember, after a lot of tap-dancing around my feelings for months, finally falling all the way for a girl in the moments after she stood on tip-toes and whispered to me, in just the right tiny voice, "Why are you so nice to me?" Just remembering that now, almost a decade later, makes the top of my spine feel a little ticklish.
I'm going to go to my grave remembering exactly how she sounded in that moment, just like I'm going to go to my grave remembering exactly when I finally learned how to tie my shoe, and exactly when I finally understood the relationship between the quadratic equation and completing the square, and exactly when I finally learned how to tell the difference between spatter and sizzle by ear. ASMR is a common thread between all those memories.
At least for me, something about that sensation makes the part of my brain which learns new things sit up straight and sharpen its pencil.
And now I've found out that I can have those sensations any time I want. I don't need to learn something new. I don't need to fall in love again. I just need to put on a really good pair of headphones, open YouTube, and watch a total stranger looking into the camera, pretending to draw my portrait and pretending to struggle with how to do it correctly. Sometimes I experience those sensations even when I don't want to experience them. Please don't eat candy when you're in a hospital waiting room.
Whatever this is, I need to understand it better. I can't let the chimp win.
Or maybe that's just the excuse I came up with so that I don't have to admit that the chimp has already won, and just wants more of what it wants.
I like to think that, for the time being, we've arrived at an uneasy compromise. I tingle, and I worry.