ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response”. It refers to a tingling feeling around a person’s scalp, the back of the neck, and/or the upper spine. However, the internet agrees that it’s difficult to describe exactly how ASMR feels. People often compare it to static, a light electric current, goosebumps, a shiver, or even carbonation.
Even though she wouldn’t have googled the phrase “What is ASMR”?, modernist writer Virginia Woolf described something very similar in her novel Mrs. Dalloway. In a key passage, a patient describes the way his nurse’s voice calms him. Her voice “deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness...like a grasshopper’s...rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound”. Clearly, Woolf would have understood when The Atlantic described ASMR as a “braingasm”.
If you want to investigate what all the fuss is about, I recommend watching one of the many ASMR videos on YouTube. These videos often include people whispering or softly speaking into a microphone. Maybe they're using their nails or metal implements to tap or scrape hard surfaces, crinkling, crushing. Perhaps they feature people cutting items like soap and dense foam, or simply moving sand around.
In addition, movies can inadvertently provide viewers with examples of ASMR. From fabric rustling in Phantom Thread to Amélie whispering in a French cinema, you’ve probably encountered ASMR-adjacent sounds in multiple films without even realizing it. If your 11-year-old self felt the hair on the back of your neck stand up (in a good way) when Harry Potter scribbled his quill in the quiet Hogwarts Library, that may have been your first experience in ASMR.
As someone who is not very sensitive to these ASMR triggers, the best way that I can understand the appeal of these sounds is through memory. When I think back to when I had the nape of my neck shaved with an electric razor and felt an intense shiver run down my spine.
Apparently, I’m not alone. For many people (according to one study, almost 70%), enjoying ASMR doesn’t just come from noises, but tactile sensations. This means that things like massages, manicures, and (as I’ve experienced) hair cuts can provoke the pleasant tingling sensation that lies at the heart of ASMR.
According to a recent study, people with synesthesia may respond more strongly to ASMR.
Synesthesia is a curious condition where the body’s different senses interact. For example, the sight of a strawberry triggers the sounds of a busy city. A person smells the ocean and immediately perceives that sensation as aligned with a vivid yellow.
If the link between synesthesia and ASMR solidifies, that connection may suggest that a person’s sensitivity to ASMR may be genetic (like synesthesia). It could also mean that ASMR sounds specifically trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (again, like synesthesia).
According to medical professionals, ASMR is an effective way to help people relax and feel relief.
The sounds and sensations associated with ASMR encourage us to fall asleep. They can even soothe symptoms of depression and other mental health issues.
As one person wrote, ASMR helps her feel “zoned out, chilled out, and calm”. Some people take baths, other people watch disembodied hands whip an absurd amount of Ferrero Rochers and cream into a frozen dessert. To each their own.
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