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Head Tingles: Less Creepy Than They Sound

By Hannah McCartney · May 22nd, 2013 · We, As Humans
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When my cubicle buddy, German Lopez, finds  himself in one of his Internet black holes, it’s not uncommon for him to share things with me like cat videos or weird news stories. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they’re about video games or the economy and I zone out two lines in. 

A few days ago, though, in perhaps the first useful tidbit he’s ever sent me, German stumbled upon an article about something called ASMR, which he shared with me shortly after some kind of ferret GIF.  

We read the piece with simultaneous incredulousness when we both learned that we’re not the only human beings who find ourselves entranced by decidedly boring things like the sounds of paper crackling or 20-minute YouTube videos of strangers whispering softly about giving you a pretend haircut. 

Those, the Internet has taught us, are some of our “triggers” — for me, right alongside The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, head massages and a whole Narnia of other untouched, weirdly humdrum happenings, sounds or experiences I have yet to unearth. 

A “trigger” not meaning I feel like I need to get up and paint a woodsy mountain chalet, not like that at all. It’s something sparked in my brain I’ve learned is a tangible but decidedly misunderstood neologism — “ASMR,” which stands for  Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. 

That’s perhaps an overzealously scientific name for a crowd-sourced concept with basically no scientific backing. To define it tersely, experiencing ASMR is commonly described as a “brain-gasm” or “head tingle.” Very professional. 

The best way I can put it into words is like a natural high you might feel when you find yourself caught up in a perfect night with your friends two glasses of wine in, the atmosphere so ideal you take a second to look around and appreciate it and, just a little, you buzz in happiness. 

It’s a sort of reactionary state of euphoria, relaxation and peace some humans — like me — experience, but jumpstarted by the mundane, unremarkable and just plain weird.

If someone totally devoid of the capability to experience ASMR were to watch a staged ASMR video (there are now hundreds on YouTube — it’s growing into a subculture), I wouldn’t blame them for originally perceiving it as a little … porn-y.

The roles of doctor or hairstylist or masseuse (some common triggers) are typically acted out by attractive women with lilting, soft voices and a constantly soft, gentle sort of smile, and the whole niche of “role-play” screams fetishism. 

But it’s certainly not a fetish, nor is the sensation remotely sexual. Those recurrences, if anything, indicate to me that maybe an ASMR experience is rooted in finding maternal-like comfort, reassurance and stability. 

As a child, I remember lying on classroom carpets and feeling a heady hypnosis from the gentle, enunciated voices of my teachers when they’d read aloud. Not sleepy, necessarily, but in a sort of stupor-like relaxation that literally would leave my body humming. It’d recur unpredictably from time to time; sometimes when someone braided my hair, sometimes when I’d run my hands through sand at the beach. It was never a sensation I actively pursued, nor one I recognized as tangible and consistent. 

That seems to be the case for most people who find themselves affected by ASMR, as far as I can tell from Internet ramblings. It’s a good feeling that happens to us often, but it’s one we’re just now learning we can induce, manipulate and explore. There are webpages dedicated to it, popular ASMR YouTube “personalities,” Facebook pages; even This American Life picked it up. 

Oddly, it’s not a ubiquitous thing. Most people, in fact, will have no idea what I’m talking about. I explained it to a few friends, most of whom shook their heads and chalked it up to a “Hannah thing.” 

And although the sensations German and I describe to one another sound the same, some of his triggers are totally disparate from mine; I felt the tingles from hearing someone eat soup; he got them from watching someone giving a massage. 

Whether it’s limited to certain humans because some people haven’t found their “triggers” yet or because there’s something different about an ASMR brain and a non-ASMR brain is something nobody seems to know. 

It’s a bizarre way to induce happiness; I can definitely admit that. But it’s happiness all the same, and the human mind and body are certainly capable of weirder. 

Now close your eyes and go listen to Bob Ross paint some shit. You know you want to try it. 



CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: hmccartney@citybeat.com



 
 
 
 

 

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