In October 2007, someone going by the name okaywhatever51838 posted a comment on the forum SteadyHealth.com under the headline ‘Weird sensation feels good’:
theres no real trigger for it. it just happenes randomly. its been happening since i was a kid and i’m 21 now … i’ll just be sitting or whatever doing whatever and it happens. its like in my head and all over my body. if i get an itch when i’m experiencing the sensation i won’t scratch it cause the itch helps intensify it. i also like to trace my fingers along my skin because it feels good when experiencing the sensation. sometimes my eyes will water. when the sensation is over i will sometimes feel nauseous, but not that bad. just a slight hint of nausea. what is it?? i’m not complaining cause i love it, but i’m just wondering what it might be … help.
Replies flooded in from SteadyHealth members with similar experiences. Bean487 described it as a ‘sort of head orgasm, but there is nothing sexual about it’. Many people were glad to learn they weren’t alone: ‘I had never mentioned this amazing head sensation to anybody until reading it on this page.’ It turned out to be a common story: a mystery feeling experienced as a child, secret tingles, goosebumps. ‘Wow!’ one person responded. ‘Fellow weirdos I have found you lol!’ Most people described a fuzzy sensation at the base of the skull that spread out through the neck and shoulders. The causes, however, were diverse: sounds, sights, touch, whispering, tapping, eating, drawing. Many commentators wondered if the sensation was triggered by memories of childhood intimacy – having your hair combed, for instance. Various attempts were made to name the phenomenon: Weird Head Sensation, Attention-Induced Head Orgasm. Two years later, a ‘practising medical herbalist’ called Jennifer Allen started a Facebook group in which she proposed a name that stuck: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. A transcript of these discussions is printed across one wall of Weird Sensation Feels Good at the Design Museum, an exhibition dedicated entirely to ASMR (until 10 April).
Once the term had been established, it didn’t take long for videos to appear in which performers tried to trigger the sensation. What began as a series of forum posts grew, or mutated, over the following decade into a global machine. There are now half a million ASMR YouTube channels, and more than 25 million videos. ASMR occupies an ambiguous space online. For some, it’s a genuine community: a safe haven of soothers and tingle-seekers, a tool for anxiety relief and relaxation, amateur in style but extremely lucrative for independent self-described ASMRtists. For others, it’s a strange and unappealing fetish: a cynical form of ‘digital intimacy’. It’s the best, or the worst, the internet has to offer.
Fanatics don’t always agree about what precisely ASMR is. The curators at the Design Museum have settled on ‘a static-like sensation of low-grade euphoria or deep calming triggered by gentle sound, touch and movement’. In one of the videos on display, someone called Gibi ASMR describes it as ‘a vast genre of potential content meant to soothe, relax, entertain’. It’s not surprising that the resulting exhibition is chaotic. The video pieces are divided into intentional and unintentional ASMR. An entire room is given over to the TV presenter and painter Bob Ross, whose instructional shows from the 1980s and 1990s are described by many as their first experience of ASMR. During the pandemic, the BBC ran Ross’s The Joy of Painting on repeat. He talks us through his brush technique and the colours he uses – phthalo blue, alizarin crimson – as he gently applies paint to canvas. His soothing voice and encouraging comments – ‘there are no mistakes, just happy accidents’ – are filed here under ‘unintentional’, but while Ross may not have called his style ASMR, he knew what he was doing. The truly unintentional clips are curiosities, but it’s hard to say what exactly connects the rhythmic hum of a sewing machine, the crackle of tinfoil and advertisements for flat-pack furniture other than their potential to be experienced as ASMR. In one ‘unintentional’ video, Björk describes the inside of an old TV. The grainy footage of her pulling it apart and describing the chipboard as a ‘model of a city’ with ‘houses and streets’ mingles soundscape and nostalgia. She also knew what she was doing.
The intentional ASMR videos are more interesting. The range is immense, though the curators, perhaps wary of the fetish label, have avoided the weirder end of the spectrum. A typical video will show a single performer whispering into a hypersensitive microphone, tapping their nails on the spines of books or crinkling tissue paper. Often the performances re-create ordinary experiences – a wet shave at the barber’s, a librarian’s hushed tones – but sometimes the clips are stranger: first contact with a race of whispering aliens, anyone? There are videos with titles such as ‘ASMR Soviet Interrogation ☭ Cold War Spy Roleplay (Relaxing Binaural Frequencies and Mild Threat)’ and ‘1300s AD ASMR – Nun Takes Care of You in Bed (You Have the Plague)’. It’s not all theatre: one oddly relaxing series of videos shows ASMRtists cleaning their guns. Displayed on large screens in a gallery, rather than on a phone or laptop, the intentional videos aren’t convincing as art objects. The curators have tried to enhance the experience by providing a wooden structure covered in plush fabric shapes on which you can sit to watch the videos. It looks as though it belongs to one of Spartacus (now Monster) Chetwynd’s theatrical performances, and anyone looking for an art exhibition might find themselves wishing it was.
One of the best descriptions of ASMR comes, oddly, from Virginia Woolf. The Austrian writer Clemens Setz pointed to the moment in Mrs Dalloway where a plane is skywriting an advertisement. A nurse reads the letters out to Septimus one by one, as they appear:
‘K … R …’ said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say ‘Kay Arr’ close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke. A marvellous discovery indeed – that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees into life!
The lack of a clear definition makes it difficult to be ‘above all scientific’ about ASMR. In 2012, the president of the New England Sceptical Society, the neurologist Steven Novella, wrote that he was ‘inclined to believe’ that ASMR was a ‘real thing’. ‘There are a number of people who seem to have independently … experienced and described’ the phenomenon with ‘fairly specific details … in this way it’s similar to migraine headaches.’ Yet there are only a handful of studies dedicated to ASMR, all with small sample sizes and tentative conclusions. Misophonia, on the other hand, a term coined in 2001 by the audiologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff to describe an aversion to particular sounds (loud chewing, say, or the squeak of polystyrene), is the subject of hundreds of published papers. One researcher, Craig Richard, suggests that part of the problem is the identification of ‘real’ ASMR patients. Many people find ASMR videos relaxing, but not everyone gets the weird sensation. The other problem is that it’s hard to headgasm in a laboratory.
For some ASMRtists, the goal is to be taken seriously as a subject of study. Jennifer Allen set up her Facebook group in order ‘to find medical and technical expertise to lend credit to the phenomenon’. But if ASMRtists wanted to be taken seriously, they should really have settled on a less overtly pseudoscientific name. In a recent interview, Allen defended her coinage:
Critics like to call the term pseudoscientific, but I contend that, in this climate of abject scepticism and immediate gratification for knowledge, anything less formal or explicit would have failed to meet the needs in this very unique social circumstance. The name was what it had to be to help the community survive, and that was my mission.
She also responded to accusations that she hadn’t included the word ‘orgasm’ in the acronym because she thought ‘meridian’ meant the same thing: ‘I never mistook the word meridian for orgasm. I wanted to use a word that would replace the word orgasm, and referenced the dictionary definition … “a point or period of highest development, greatest prosperity, or the like”.’ But why replace orgasm at all? Plenty of the original commenters on SteadyHealth described it as such. ASMR’s biggest advocates seem afraid to recognise its more subversive qualities for fear of the damage such an admission might do to ‘the community’. They’re trying too hard to make a weird sensation less weird.
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