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Sounds are everywhere, especially when you live in New York. But have you ever stopped to listen to the tapping sounds of acrylic nails when one types, the smacking of your teeth when you chew your gum, or even the clipping noise of a stranger cutting their nails on a subway car? Well, maybe not the last example, but for some, these sounds do more than make them feel a little disturbed. For a growing number of people online, these sounds provide a euphoric feeling of calm and temporary release.
Widely enjoyed but little understood, ASMR, short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is the pseudoscientific name coined by the Internets to describe a spontaneous, current-like sensation that radiates from the back of head to your spine, relaxing you everywhere. Others call it “Attention Induced Head Orgasm” (AIHO), which refers to the way the physical tingling begins in your scalp and moves its way down your limbs. But don’t let the word “orgasm” trick you into thinking it’s something sexual; it’s not. It’s more aligned with meditation. You can experience this feeling in a variety of ways: aural, touch-based, or both. Popular “light touch” triggers include someone playing with your hair, stroking your arm, or a lover drawing words on the back of your hand with their finger. Even the anticipation of being touched can give someone full body tingles. Similar to cats purring in glee in response to being petted, these bonding behaviors are not unique to humans. Light touch have resounding responses that are enjoyed when done by a trusted person. The release of endorphins in our brain can occur between closely-bonded individuals like best friends and romantic partners, or even your hair stylist. Overall most ASMR-ers vary in what triggers them the most, but soft-spoken, somewhat repetitive, well-defined noises seem to be the most popular online.
I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled across an ASMR video. After being glued to my work computer for 10 hours one night, I had sunken myself in a deep rabbit hole called YouTube. I ended up stumbling onto a Mukbang video. I found the whole experience to be fascinating: watching someone softly speaking to viewers while consuming large amounts of crispy fried shrimp on camera. I had so many questions about this, but I was more consumed with the crunchy sound of the person eating and whispering against the microphone. I was starting to notice a pleasant, goosebump-y feeling on my skin with every flaky crunch. It was like an invisible head scratch, yet there was something so calming about that strange video. So of course, I listened to it over and over again, enjoying the relaxation while trying not to be too embarrassed and disgusted by it. I never told anyone my strange secret until I discovered this large community of ASMR videos on YouTube.
When I really think about it though, I believe my journey with ASMR began when I was younger, watching “The Joy of Painting” TV series with Bob Ross. I remembered coming home from school and flipping channels to PBS to watch this show. My ears would perk up as I heard Ross’ magical baritone voice. Along with the back and forth sounds of his paintbrush stroking the canvas to create his “happy little trees,” I found myself hypnotized, entering a happy little place called nap time. My brain would quickly feel fuzzy and my whole body would be out in 10 minutes.
In general, my friends just think I’m kind of weird, but for me, these sounds are needed.
Research science isn’t really sure about the root cause of ASMR, or what’s happening in the brain to have some people feel the buzz, but not others. Preliminary research is being done. Scientists are also studying its possible use in treating conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anything that can help soothe anxiety, depression, and chronic pain for so many people is clearly a valuable resource, no matter how odd it might seem.
Personally, ASMR helps me switch off and fall asleep. I suffer from anxiety, and for most of my adult life, I’ve searched for non-physical ways (running and yoga, to be exact) to soothe the tightness in my chest and help me unwind and chill. Listening to these types of sounds has not only given me hours of sleep back but also hours of my life back. I tend to prefer quiet noises such as zippers zipping, rustling paper, or a match stroking against microphones. The scratchy noises not only take me to a calming place away from the anxieties and stressors in my life, but it helps me turn my mind off and get to sleep much faster. Currently, I incorporated ASMR videos into my daily routine for the rest of the week, listening to a different set of videos every night.
I often wonder how many people use ASMR, or how many people might want to but just haven’t tapped in and found their right trigger yet. It can take time to find one that works for you, but there are also people who don’t feel anything while watching ASMR videos. It truly is an experience I wish everyone could have. At the end of a long, stressful day, to sit back and be almost immediately brought into a calm and meditative state is something I am so grateful to have. It stressed the idea that small pleasures can be impactful, and that we don’t need much to make us happy. Chances are if you have ASMR, you probably already know it and have an idea of what you respond to. Either way, it’s worth checking out, especially if you struggle with stress and anxiety. Just listen. Relax. And seriously think, how can you not get turned on by these sounds?
Originally submitted for Issue 8 of Undo Magazine.
WRITER: Sacha Noelle