ASMR IS SUCH A WEIRD PHENOMENON
For those who experience it, ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is a euphoric sensation that at times is overwhelming. For those who don't, it's usually "that cringy, awkward, creepy stuff". Little research has been done on ASMR and the world still doesn't really know why it happens.
I'm not a neurologist or a scientist, but I've spent more than 40 years experiencing and contemplating ASMR and I have some theories that I think genuinely explain what ASMR really is and why it happens. I believe ASMR has a purpose and played an important role in our species' evolution and survival. And while I didn't name it ASMR, I'm partly responsible for why we call it that today. I'll explain that in a bit.
WHAT DOES ASMR ACTUALLY FEEL LIKE?
Once it's triggered, ASMR creates a very pleasurable, tingly feeling that glides across the scalp in friendly waves and can even seem as though it's being felt deep under the scalp. The feeling can sometimes travel down the neck, shoulders and back. This feeling varies in intensity and promotes a euphoric sense of calm, relaxation and well being. The person experiencing ASMR is usually filled with a strong desire to simply remain still and enjoy the sensation until it fades (usually in 2 to 10 minutes, given the circumstances and the person). As someone who has battled an opioid addiction, I can tell you that strength and intensity of ASMR is easily comparable to the strength of a drug like euphoria. The ASMR feeling does not hinder a person's judgement by making them feel high or drunk. The subject remains clear headed and aware (though usually very relaxed).
IS ASMR SEXUAL? COME ON, IS IT? BE REAL WITH ME.
No. Not in the least. ASMR is often mistaken by people without it, as a kink or fetish. This is in no way true. The pleasurable feelings ASMR brings do not induce sexual feelings or urges. "But Tarol," I hear you saying, "I know people online who say they DO find it sexual". Yes. And there are people with a kink for combining food with sexual arousal, but this does not mean that the pleasure we get from yummy foods is sexual in nature. Some people are turned on by bondage, yet this doesn't make ropes innately sexual. Lots of people enjoy incorporating otherwise nonsexual aspects of the world around them into an erotic experience. The pleasure experienced by ASMR is no more sexual that the pleasure experienced from eating our favourite foods.
AFTER HEARING ABOUT THIS ASMR THING, I THINK I MIGHT ALSO HAVE IT.
I hear this a lot. It's an understandable reaction to something that is often so poorly and vaguely explained. "Oh it's a good feeling? Hey, I've felt good feelings before! Maybe I have it too". Let me sum this up. If, after hearing/reading about ASMR, you're saying "I think I have that", then you don't. If you're not completely sure if you have ASMR, then you don't have it. The ASMR sensation is so hard to explain, because it's so different than almost any other feeling. We try to compare it to other sensations like "tingly goosebumps" etc, but this hardly covers the actual feeling. ASMR is unique and impossible to miss, when it happens. It's like if I told you that massive dinosaurs were stampeding through my living room every morning and your response is "Hmmmm. Now that you mention it, I think dinosaurs might be stampeding through my living room too". If you actually have dinosaurs charging through your living room, you absolutely know it. If you have to think about whether or not dinosaurs charge through your home, it's definitely not happening to you.
Triggers are the events or experiences that can create the ASMR sensation. These triggers can vary a bit from person to person, but they all follow specific rules that give away the whole purpose of ASMR. Common triggers include whispering, chewing, gentle touching or close up focus on the ASMR subject (like a doctor shining a light in your ear or quietly listening to your heartbeat with a stethoscope). When looking at the pleasure that the ASMR subject feels and the apparent intimacy of some of these triggers, it's easy to see why non-ASMR folks might think that it's a sexual thing. What's worse, it's very common to see someone with an actual sexual kink, swearing up and down that "It's not sexual! Really". So an ASMR subject promising that it's not sexual, can leave their friend rolling their eyes and thinking "Oh yeah, this stuff is TOTALLY sexual"
MY LIFE WITH ASMR
I know that this blog isn't about me, but I think that recounting my discovery and gradual understanding of ASMR might help a bit to explain exactly what it is. I'll mark these bits with a "TL;DR" so you can skip them if you like.
I WAS NOT A SMART KID (TL;DR... I didn't know where the tingles were coming from, I just accepted it)
I was born in 1973. It was in the late 70s that I started to experience the ASMR 'tingles', usually at school. I had no idea what was triggering it, I just knew that it was this wonderful feeling that happened sometimes and I didn't consider the reason or cause. Kids are very good at just accepting the world for what it is. To make my point, here are some things that I actually believed as a small child...
- I had no idea that elevators were meant to go up and down, I thought they always stayed still. I calmly and thoroughly believed that when the elevator doors closed with me and my Mom inside, the world outside the elevator was morphed into something different. I remember standing in an elevator and as the doors closed, I noticed a man standing in the hall just outside. When the doors opened again, an old lady was standing more or less where the man was. I thought the elevator had turned him into the old lady.
- I thought that if I smashed my family's TV screen, the cartoon characters would come out of it and play with me. I remember grabbing my 12 inch Spider-Man doll and hitting the screen over and over as hard as I could, during an episode of Tom & Jerry. Lucky I was not a strong kid and I failed to break the screen.
- I thought that the scuba divers I'd seen on TV were stupid for lugging around those big, heavy tanks on their backs. I thought "If I ever get to go scuba diving, I'm gonna cut the mouth piece off of the tube attached to the tank so I can breathe through that without needing the tank. They're dummies for not thinking of that."
- I once asked my Mom where babies come from. She told me "The man puts a seed inside the woman and that grows into a baby". That afternoon I stole a big box of sunflower seeds from our cupboard and went to the playground. I handed out sunflower seeds to all the girls to eat. I was excited about all the babies I was going to have.
So as you can see, it's no surprise that as a kid, I shrugged and accepted that the tingly sensations just... happened.
DISCOVERING MY TRIGGERS (TL;DR... I discovered that certain things trigger the sensation)
I kept the tingly feeling to myself and never told anyone else. For a lot of my childhood, I thought that I was the only person in the world feeling those tingles. I started to learn what the triggers were and I became more familiar with what caused the sensation.
- At one school I went to, we'd eat our lunches at our desks. As we all sat at our desks, eating out of our paper bags and Scooby-Doo lunchboxes, the girl in front of me happened to be a rather loud chewer. I sat eating my lunch and enjoying a session of tingles.
- At another school, the classroom was very silent as we all focused on an important math test. The girl in the desk next to me was breathing kinda loudly through her nose. This also set off the sensation.
- As a kid, we had a cool
button stamp. We'd put the little metal disks into the device and pull
the lever, creating a wearable button that showed off whatever picture
we put inside. During the Christmas season, I used to draw dozens of
colourful Christmas pictures and create tons of buttons. I'd then set up
a table near the mall and sell them to people passing by. Many times,
I'd get those tingles while watching someone slowly looking over my
- I remember sitting at my desk at school and the boy sitting next to me didn't have a pencil, so he asked if I had one I could lend him. I opened up my pencil case and handed him my extra pencil. As I watched him concentrate on his schoolwork, using my pencil, I started to get the tingly feeling.
YOU MEAN I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE?! (TL;DR... I discovered that another kid also had ASMR)
One of my favourite triggers was a lice check. See, if a kid at school was sent home with lice, they'd get nurses to go from classroom to classroom, carefully checking each kid's hair for lice. They'd gently search through your hair with what appeared to be chopsticks. This was possibly the strongest trigger for me. I secretly loved lice checks. One day, two ladies came into our classroom to do a check. I inwardly cheered. Then suddenly a boy near the front of the class yelled out "Oh boy! I love when they do this! It makes my head feel all tingly!". What?!? No one could tell, but in my mind I was freaking out. What I thought to be something that only I experienced, suddenly became something others can have too. From then on, I looked at the phenomenon very differently. If it happens to others, then there must be a reason for it. Suddenly I was immensely curious about it all. I would have gone and talked to that kid about it, but... I hated him so much. He once asked for a bite of my doughnut and then shoved the whole thing in his mouth, grinning at me. Damn, I hated that kid.
THE INTERNET CHANGED EVERYTHING
Years later, this weird internet thing was suddenly exploding everywhere. I remember being at a friend's house while he showed me a few others, how it worked. We entered the word "vampire" (it was the 90s. Vampires were the most popular thing in the universe) into the pre-Google search engine and gasped as literally DOZENS of websites about vampires popped up! I quickly realised what I could do with something like this! I could type "boobs"! Later I realised that I could finally learn about these weird tingles. That's when I found that searching for info on something that has no name and is nigh impossible to describe, was really hard. I found nothing. Every year or so, I would get curious about the sensation and try another internet search. I don't remember the actual year that I finally found a forum on the subject, but I remember it was the computer set up that I had on 9/11, so it was somewhere around then (no disrespect intended, that was just a time we all remember clearly).
WE CALL IT ASMR PARTLY BECAUSE OF ME. ...SORT OF.
I was excited to jump into a group (I think it was on Yahoo or MSN or something) where I could finally talk to other people about this! We regulars in the group would talk about triggers, theories about why it exists and many, many complaints of trying (and failing) to convince others that this was in no way sexual.
A thread eventually popped up, discussing how this thing needs a name. We started suggesting ideas for what we could call it. I don't remember my suggestions but I'm sure they were awful. The name everyone settled on was... "Brain Orgasm". The new, official name was quickly used by the group. When I discovered that Brain Orgasm had been chosen, I wrote a thread arguing that we really shouldn't use that name. I explained that if we want to convince others that this is not sexual, we really should avoid the word "orgasm" in the title. Everyone agreed and so the naming process started again. This time a lady (I vaguely remember her being a doctor but I might be wrong about that) suggested that we call it "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response" or ASMR. I immediately hated the name and declared that it was "worse than Brain Orgasm". I argued that it was hard to remember, hard to say and even the initials didn't roll off the tongue. I was sure the name wouldn't stick. But everyone except me loved it and so that became the official name for it. Obviously I was very wrong about the name and I'm glad everyone had the sense to disagree with me.
WHY DOES ASMR EXIST AND WHAT IS IT FOR?
Okay. Remember that while I honestly think I'm right about this and have spent four decades coming to this conclusion, this is just the opinion of one person familiar with the subject matter. As far as I know, there have been no proper studies to back up what I'm about to say.
We've all seen creatures like apes grooming each other, picking bugs, etc out of each other's fur. The ape being groomed always seems to be sitting still and calmly enjoying the attention. For those apes, grooming each other is a great way to keep clean and more likely to avoid diseases or infections. It's also a great way for creatures with simpler communication practices to bond socially. This bond encourages the animals to stick together for safety, share food and even defend each other when attacked. So grooming each other makes sense as an important instinct that would evolve over time. Dogs and cats have a form of this that has developed from our symbiotic relationship. They enjoy being pet or scratched which seems less about grooming and more about creating or strengthening a social bond (though I once found a tick on my dog while I was scratching her belly). Cats even purr, which honestly, if I had to attribute a sound to the feeling of ASMR, purring fits it perfectly.
So it's possible that the ape being groomed or the cat
being pet, is feeling some form of ASMR. And it's just as possible that
our hunter-gatherer ancestors who groomed each other in similar ways, also felt a kind of ASMR. In a harsh world of survival of the fittest,
those who evolve the ability to feel pleasure from it are more likely to
gain more benefits from the higher amount of cleanliness and social
bounds. Consider what the ASMR sensation encourages the subject to do.
Keep still, quiet and not interrupt the person triggering the feeling.
Sometimes relaxing enough to fall asleep if the situation warrants it.
All these tendencies brought on by ASMR aid the grooming process.
Now let's look at the triggers. If what I'm saying is true, then that explains the ASMR from something like a lice check, but what about those other triggers? They all seem to play a part in the grooming process as well.
- Whispering: The sound of someone whispering suggests physical closeness. The kind of personal space sharing required for ape-like grooming. Look at the ASMR videos on YouTube. They all whisper as close to the microphone as possible, creating a sense of intense closeness. Whispering is only heard if the person doing it is positioned very close to you. So it fits the grooming theory.
- Chewing, breathing and mouth sounds: Like whispering these sounds are almost always heard if the person making them is close to you. During those classroom lice checks, I'd hear the nurse breathing right into my ear, as she was very close. The tiniest movement of her lips or mouth was easily heard. It seems logical to me that as we evolve to adhere to being groomed, we'd respond to the sounds and sensations that would commonly be heard during each grooming.
- Borrowing my pencil or studying the buttons I made: The two important details here are focus and the subject's sense of self. The ape doing the grooming is going to be focused intently on what they're doing and that focus is completely on the subject being groomed. I thought of my pencil as 'mine'. An extension of my person. The same can be said for my buttons. I drew each one of those pictures by hand and so they were very much mine. When the kid focused on his schoolwork and therefore on my pencil or those people quietly studied my little pictures, it triggered the ASMR as if a groomer was focusing intently on me.
I've never been into the YouTube ASMR roleplay videos, but look at the themes used to trigger people's ASMR. Roleplays about someone shaving you, cleaning your ears, doing your hair, etc. Those all point directly at grooming. Every trigger seems to be either a sound that's usually only heard close up, intense focus on the subject, gentle touching or something that mimics a feeling of isolated intimacy.
So to put it bluntly, I believe that ASMR is essentially a largely redundant grooming instinct left over from our times as hunter-gatherers, when grooming was far more important and vital.
My comic: http://www.goblinscomic.org/(anyone is welcome to repost this blog anywhere they like. I only ask that you credit me and include those links. Thank you.)