For the past year or so, I’ve been an avid listener of the NPR program This American Life, available as a podcast through iTunes. A new episode is released each Sunday. If you’re not familiar with the program, it is hosted by Ira Glass and basically presents stories, both fiction and non-fiction, based around a theme. This week’s theme was “Tribes,” and when I plugged my iPhone in to make the 45-minute drive to meet Klara’s friends for story-hour, I expected to be entertained and fascinated as usual; what I didn’t expect that I would find my “tribe” represented.
Andrea began by describing a phenomenon she’d first noticed as a child, a sensation she’d get she describes as “…this tingling throughout my skull…Starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down at the nape like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp.” I was pretty sure I knew what she was talking about, especially when she said she’d find this feeling listening to whispering friends, pages being turned in a quiet library, the soft voice of a librarian. This was definitely familiar territory.
Andrea goes on to describe herself as an anxious child and adult, which I can also identify with; I’ve been in treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder since college but know I’ve been dealing with anxiety for much of my life. These episodes, she say, gave her a respite, a chance for the tight coils inside her to unwind for a bit. She talks about programs on T.V. that gave her this feeling, particularly everyone’s favorite calming program – Bob Ross, the whispering painter. I laughed – I used to love to zone out to his program. And yeah, I know most people loved his soothing tones and the way his brush dabbled its way across the canvas. But the way Andrea describes it is so exactly what I would feel: “…I am going into a trance. My jaw kind of goes slack. My eyes are probably a little glassy. And my head is a globe.” But it wasn’t until she mentioned watching hours of home shopping programs without even thinking about buying anything, just to get this feeling, that I paused the program and called my mom.
I call my mom almost every week to talk about This American Life – there’s usually something so fascinating or universally identifiable that I want to discuss it with her. I could not contain my excitement when she said she’d hear this week’s: “That girl, the girl talking in the second story, about that feeling she gets when she hears sounds: THAT’S ME!” I was so incredibly excited by this, and I hadn’t even finished listening. “You don’t understand, she’s describing me exactly!” Thankfully my mom appreciated how interesting and spectacular this was. This was, I told her, why I loved Mr. Rogers so much as a kid, and why I love public radio now. We even speculated that it could be related to my mom’s similar but opposite issue, misophonia, which is when a person can’t tolerate certain sounds, particularly soft ones. I told her I was pretty sure my brother would identify with this as well; I remember vividly as a child he said to me, “You know when you get like, fun headaches?” And I totally did. “You were probably the only one he could have said that to who would have understood,” my mom said. Andrea talks about hiding her experience because she didn’t want to seem odd; I just never mentioned it because I didn’t know it was extraordinary. I even told people about my strange home shopping habit and joked that I put it on when I wanted to nap.
After I hung up with my mom and put the program back on, it got even more specific to me. Andrea talks about watching makeup tutorials and haul videos on YouTube; check and check. I discovered these videos around the time my daughter was born, and they did become something of a guilty pleasure. Haul videos are when someone, usually a woman, posts a video showing and explaining all the things she bought on a recent shopping trip: clothes, jewelry, makeup, etc., going through each one, showing it off, talking about how she’ll wear or use it. I was kind of embarrassed about how much I loved these insipid videos, even though I wasn’t watching for the products – I was watching because of how much they relaxed me. Andrea even talks about a preference for voices speaking in “lightly accented English” – check. Andrea says, “I wanted someone speaking in lightly accented English. And I wanted them talking to me about jewelry, slowly and deliberately. And preferably, it’s tacky or cheap jewelry that isn’t being treated as if it’s tacky and cheap. And just like porn, the effect wears off after a while. You have to find new videos.” I think it was at this point I started to cry – it was such an odd sensation to have someone describe in such exact detail something I also experience. It was like listening to someone read something I could have written, except I didn’t. I hadn’t even ever thought about it in this much detail, I just took it for granted. But this, finding out that it’s a Thing…wow. Andrea even goes on to describe the sensation as a “pleasureable headache” and says that people who experience this often enjoy public radio: check and check.
This phenomenon, as I found from listening further, has a name: ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. As far as I can tell, this is not a scientific term but one generally accepted and understood. There’s a whole ASMR world online; people base whole YouTube channels on creating videos with the specific intent of triggering ASMR responses.
Like Andrea admits on the podcast, “…I know this is all starting to sound like porn and someone’s obsession with porn. But it’s not porn, even if it does operate a little bit like porn. All the searching for videos, trying to find exactly the right moment or performer, developing very specific tastes and preferences.” Trolling around YouTube, things do get decidedly creepy; people post videos where they “role-play” identities such as spa technicians, massage therapists, travel agents, etc., something some people seeking ASMR seem to enjoy. But watching these, I discovered I don’t really care who they are or what they’re saying – it’s all about they sensation they create. For me at least, there’s nothing remotely sexual about this; the only thing it has in common is that it’s a physical sensation. If you strip away the trappings, these videos all basically feature people speaking softly, whispering in accented English, tapping, clicking, clinking.
Andrea describes that, upon discovering that ASMR is a Thing herself, she became “about as excited as I’ve ever been,” which was basically how I was feeling at that point too. The more I thought about it, the more I’d been experiencing this without even thinking about it. The thing about ASMR is that not just any sound triggers it, but quite specific things. ASMR-research.org lists triggers as:
- Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
- Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
- Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
- Enjoying a piece of art or music
- Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner – examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
- Close, personal attention from another person
- Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back
For me, the demonstrating/instructing/explaining piece is a big factor, and I know it is for others as well; Andrea mentions that one of the requests people make on YouTube is for a host to “Pick something up…and tell facts about it.” I remember a high school French teacher whose soft, lightly accented voice was pleasant, but I didn’t experience ASMR until one day in class where she went through a stack of French impressionist paintings one by one, softly explaining the technique and significance of each piece; I became so relaxed I almost slid out of my chair. A tour guide on a bus during a college trip to Belgium, her voice crisp but slightly muffled from the microphone, almost sent me into a coma. I remember a college R.A. who used to leave everyone in the building long, detailed voice mails that I’d play over and over for the ASMR “hit” I’d get while listening. I panicked when Sarah Dowdey, the co-host of my other favorite podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class, announced she was leaving. Luckily, that podcast lets you save old episodes. Fascinating historical anecdotes imparted in her soft, lilting voice was a goldmine. Even Leno running through his “Headlines” sometimes gives me a buzz. My husband kept me calm during labor by going on Wikipedia and reading my the long list of events that had happened on our baby’s soon-to-be birthday.
When I told my sister about this, she had some questions, particularly wondering how this was different from a voice or noise just making you sleepy, like a professor droning on in a lecture hall or a fan in your room providing white noise (which yes, I do use to sleep). That stumped me for a minute, but I know it’s different. Unless I’m lying down with the intent of going to sleep, ASMR doesn’t put me to sleep. It’s a pleasureable feeling distinct from tiredness, an actual phsyical sensation that I seek out, and has such specific parameters.
I just called my brother, warning him I had a weird question: “Do you remember when we were little and you said you had…fun headaches?” “Yes!” he responded. “I just Googled that a few weeks ago. Did you know it’s like a Thing?” He said he still gets it, practically every day after lunch, when he zones out at his desk, relaxing and digesting. In this case, it doesn’t seem to be triggered by a sound, but he did mention that he rubs the back of his neck with a metal letter opener to bring himself out of it; another layer of the phenomenon that I read about mentioned that your skin can also become super sensitive during an episode, which I definitely experience. He mentioned that it can also happen when people are explaining things; he remembered as a kid that I was collaborating on a posterboard for a school project with a friend and he was sitting nearby in the room, his head a-tingle. “Just out of curiosity,” I asked, “what exactly did you Google? Fun headaches?”
“I think it was like, ‘head tingling when people explain things’ or something like that.”
It’s nice to know someone in my family is also part of my tribe.