Certain things make us feel good, and most of the time, they’re pretty black and white. Massages make us feel relaxed. Lying down makes us feel rested. Being held makes us feel secure. But some people experience a real, physical and pleasurable sensation through sound alone. These people make up the relatively small population affected by a condition known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR.
ASMR usually presents itself in the form of a tingling in the scalp or the back of your neck (which some describe as a pleasurable headache), and can extend throughout the rest of the body. Though the sensation isn’t sexual in nature, it’s often likened to orgasm. Those affected explain that the tingling they experience can be brought on by a number of different stimuli. Listening to the crinkling of a bag, for example. A soothing whisper, a gentle knocking, watching QVC with the volume turned down low. Even Bob Ross, the “happy tree” guy from PBS. These clips are often sometimes referred to as “tedium porn.”
Maria, 28, who doesn't want to give her last name, has uploaded hundreds of ASMR-related videos to YouTube over the past three years, some running for as long as 45 minutes. The Russian expat, also known as GentleWhispering, is probably best known for her “whispering” videos, but has also tinkered with things like page-turning and chewing gum.
Like a lot of things under discussed and undiscovered, ASMR has an incredibly well-organized community. Over 343,000 ASMR subjects (or enthusiasts) subscribe to Maria’s channel, which has racked up over 92 million views. The tag “ASMR” has been attached to over 1,600,000 YouTube uploads.
In a 2012 interview with VICE, Maria described ASMR as feeling like “bubbles in your head.” She went on to compare it to a scalp massage, but with the sensation coming from inside your body.
“It’s like a little explosion, and then just little sparkles and little stars going down [your back],” she explained. “Depending on the strength of the trigger, it might just go into the top of the spine of your shoulders, but sometimes it goes down to your arms and legs and other parts. Mostly, if you get it in your leg, it’s really exciting.”
It’s difficult to string together a concrete definition for ASMR. The condition doesn’t manifest itself in any obvious physical form, so examination and exploration can be hard to execute. That’s probably why there have been zero scientific studies on the subject.
Neuroscientist Steven Novella wrote about the sensation back in March, saying, “It’s similar to migraine headaches—we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.”
Jenn Allen, who runs a research site, is the person who actually coined the ASMR acronym. She told VICE that “autonomous” refers to the “individualistic nature of the triggers, and the capacity in many to facilitate or completely create the sensation at will.” “Sensory” and “response” are obvious, while “meridian” is used as a more polite term for “orgasm.”
ASMR isn’t widely talked about, and our words often get jumbled when trying to explain it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a welcome sensation for those who experience it.
Latasha Bynum did a segment on the condition for her public access show in Inland Empire, Calif., and referred to ASMR as a kind of all-natural high, a method of relaxation that helped her deal with insomnia and can help others, like a homeopathic medicine would. “That’s what I really want to get across to everyone. You don’t have to take pills,” she said.