Before it was finally labeled with the official-sounding name of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), the strange sensation had many different names. Among other things, it was called attention induced euphoria, brain tingle, attention induced head orgasm, and the unnamed feeling. Those who experience it search and post on blogs, message boards, and internet forums asking “What the heck is this?” The fact that information has been sought out more and more on the topic along with the many names it goes by speaks to the difficulty in describing the neurological phenomenon as well as the medical community’s lack of interest in it. In all likelihood, humans have experienced brain tingles forever, but there are no records of its existence until a few years ago.
Before the internet, people probably kept the odd, enjoyable feeling they (usually) discovered early in life to themselves once they came to the realization that no one around them seemed to be experiencing anything similar; but then the internet came along, and these people began to cast about for answers and support. Thus, a Yahoo! group called Society of Sensationalists was formed in 2008, and someone created a blog called The Unnamed Feeling. Then, in 2010, Jenn Allen coined the term ASMR and used it to found a website dedicated to researching and supporting the phenomena.
The name ASMR is fairly self-explanatory except for the word “meridian,” which Allen said is a euphemism for orgasm. It is difficult, said Allen, to get money to study something when you call it a “brain orgasm.” Despite the name, the sensation is not associated with sexual arousal. It has been compared to getting a scalp massage, but the feeling is on the inside instead of the outside of one’s head. Brain tingles can continue down the spine and sometimes even into the limbs, and they are deeply relaxing. People susceptible to them say that they are effective in relieving insomnia and anxiety. According to Allen’s website, people can have two types of episodes: Type A or Type B. Type A episodes are achieved using specific patterns of thought unique to the individual. Type B episodes are triggered involuntarily by certain external aural, visual, cognitive, tactile, and olfactory stimuli.
For those unable to have type A episodes, a cottage industry of videos created to trigger ASMR has emerged. The existence of this unusual feeling is made even more intriguing by the type of stimuli that sets it off. Some examples include watching another person complete a task in an attentive, diligent manner; close personal attention from another person; and viewing instructive videos that feature someone whose speech is slow, accented, or has unique patterns.
The plethora of videos available on the internet provide concrete examples of the described stimuli. These videos largely star women who are attractive in a non-threatening way. Sometimes the videos involve role play, with women cooing in Eastern European-accented English at the camera while pretending to give the viewer an eye exam, facial, or haircut. Whispering is also a major ASMR trigger. One video features a woman whisper-reading the Bible’s Book of Genesis. In yet other videos, paper is crinkled or napkins are folded, or the video actresses use their long nails to scratch, tap, or massage various inanimate objects such as glasses, a wood table, or an iPod. One 20-minute video features a man digging around in a large bucket of crayons. He eventually grabs a large handful, rubs them together, and throws the handful back in the bucket. After slowly rummaging around in the bucket for a second time, he dumps all of them out and puts them back in two at a time while taking occasional breaks to rub the crayons in the bucket.
To someone who cannot experience an ASMR, the videos may come across as annoying or creepy. For people who do have these sensations, though, these videos provide a convenient, cost-free, hangover-free, all-natural high. No matter what name it goes by, not too many people would argue with that.
By Donna Westlund