I was especially bad at science in school. I failed chemistry twice and third-time-charmed my way to finally passing with a C.
So now, of course, I enjoy anything with a scientific bent and listen to excellent podcasts, like Radiolab and This American Life, that present the scientific world in a way even a dodo-brain like me can understand.
Recently, I was listening to a piece by American Life contributor Andrea Seigel, where she related having a specific sensation to the sound of a whispering voice. She described it as “this tingling throughout my skull… it was like starbursts in my head, starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down to the nape, like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp.”
As I listened, I learned there’s a name for this feeling. It’s called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR for short. It’s a feeling I’ve personally experienced since youth and one recent weekend, while mowing the grass and listening to Justin Timberlake sing “Suit & Tie.” That part where he’s all like, “lemme show you a few things…lemme show you a few things…” It sets a trillion tiny, euphoric, graceful-as-Fred-Astaire dancing ants in motion. My scalp is their happy dance floor.
Seigel’s piece focuses on her particular ASMR “trigger,” the gentle sounds of a soft voice. But, my trigger has almost always been associated with singing voices. The better the voice, the stronger the feeling.
Turns out I’m not alone. There are people all over the world submitting to — and even seeking out — ASMR triggers. A good portion of them have this sublime, relaxing and mysterious sensation induced by music. Many are trading notes and sharing stories on social media and through work done by the research organization, asmr-research.org.
“ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is a response to stimuli — sight, sound, etc. It’s usually pleasurable and is characterized by a tingling sensation on the scalp, down the spine, and even in other areas of the body, such as the limbs. This is also accompanied by feelings of euphoria and relaxation,” says Andrew MacMuiris, an outreach agent with the site’s research team.
“People wanted to know what it was, where it came from, why we experienced it,” he continues. “There was a lack of answers to be found. We like to think of Research & Support as a place where people can come and discuss ASMR and learn more about it. We have a forum for just this purpose.”
The organization created a Facebook community three years ago and the group has grown to nearly 5,500 members from across the globe. MacMuiris lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and says his musical triggers are diverse and include Leonard Cohen, instrumental guitar, even the whistling of the family’s gardener.
“For me, ASMR is almost always pleasurable, and it makes me want to sit or lay there and listen to whatever is triggering it for a long time, if not forever,” he says. “I find that I listen much more intently to the song playing, paying particular attention to the bits that trigger the sensations.”
The sensation is so pleasurable, people search for it and others do their best to help them. Seigel’s piece was about whisper-induced triggers. She introduced listeners to “ASMRtists,” people who post YouTube videos and create whisper podcasts to delight listeners. The feeling is so overpoweringly good it’s even been described as a “brain orgasm.”
“It starts in my brain — I swear I can feel it in my right brain a lot of times,” said Kelly Fuller, a South Carolinian who is part of the ASMR Facebook group. “It starts tingling and then radiates out, down my neck, down my arms, sometimes legs. I’ll often get chill bumps as a result. It really is almost like an orgasm in the way it builds and tingles, but it’s not sexual at all. I can see why people describe it as a brain orgasm, though.”
Fuller said she’s still up in the air about whether her experience is ASMR or another phenomenon known as “frisson.” The scientific research on these sensations is still relatively new, so there’s some qualifying yet to be determined. The key thing is people are stepping forward to share their stories to enhance that research.
One thing many agree on is the feeling generally begins early in life and can be so pronounced that many remember their very first ASMR experience.
Kendy Nieves Laracuente, from Luquillo, Puerto Rico, says she recalls having ASMR as a six year old. Today, classical music and big voices like Freddie Mercury’s create a feeling that “starts at the top of my head, tickles or tingles all the way down my spine, arms, legs and toes. It feels like when you get tickled by a feather, but an all-over body sensation as opposed to frisson, which only lasts seconds and gives you goosebumps.
“ASMR enhances the music I listen to, it helps me to focus on the sounds and in return I get amazing tingles,” she says.
Coloradan Annie Long says her first experience was as a child, “when my mom sang me lullabies and tickled my face.
“It’s emotional for me, if a song evokes a strong emotion, I get mad tingles,” she adds, mentioning Enya as a specific trigger artist. “It definitely enhances the music, like you can feel the music in you instead of just hearing it.”
MacMuiris reckons part of the developing thought on ASMR is everyone experiences it to some degree, but some people are more sensitive to it than others.
Fuller says she was 17 when she had her first ASMR “hit,” listening to live classical music at a summer arts camp. Today, her triggers include Florence + The Machine and Empire of the Sun. But, she says, part of the beauty of the experience is the power of its suddenness.
“It definitely enhances (music listening) in an unquantifiable way,” marvels Fuller. “It’s like magic. You never know when it’s going to happen, so I’m always looking for new songs to try.”