The ‘unnamed feeling’ named ASMR

Here’s my BBC Future column from last week. It’s about the so-called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which didn’t have a name until 2010 and I’d never heard of until 2012. Now, I’m finding out that it is surprisingly common. The original is here.

It’s a tightening at the back of the throat, or a tingling around your scalp, a chill that comes over you when you pay close attention to something, such as a person whispering instructions. It’s called the autonomous sensory meridian response, and until 2010 it didn’t exist.

I first heard about the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) from British journalist Rhodri Marsden. He had become mesmerised by intentionally boring videos he found on YouTube, things like people explaining how to fold towels, running hair dryers or role-playing interactions with dentists. Millions of people were watching the videos, reportedly for the pleasurable sensations they generated.

Rhodri asked my opinion as a psychologist. Could this be a real thing? “Sure,” I said. If people say they feel it, it has to be real – in some form or another. The question is what kind of real is it? Are all these people experiencing the same thing? Is it learnt, or something we are born with? How common is it? Those are the kind of questions we’d ask as psychologists. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the ASMR is what happened to it before psychologists put their minds to it.

Presumably the feeling has existed for all of human history. Each person discovered the experience, treasured it or ignored it, and kept the feeling to themselves. That there wasn’t a name for it until 2010 suggests that most people who had this feeling hadn’t talked about it. It’s amazing that it got this far without getting a name. In scientific terms, it didn’t exist.

But then, of course, along came the 21st Century and, like they say, even if you’re one in a million there’s thousands of you on the internet. Now there’s websites, discussion forums, even a Wikipedia page. And a name. In fact, many names – “Attention Induced Euphoria”, “braingasm”, or “the unnamed feeling” are all competing labels that haven’t caught on in the same way as ASMR.

 

This points to something curious about the way we create knowledge, illustrated by a wonderful story about the scientific history of meteorites. Rocks falling from the sky were considered myths in Europe for centuries, even though stories of their fiery trails across the sky, and actual rocks, were widely, if irregularly reported. The problem was that the kind of people who saw meteorites and subsequently collected them tended to be the kind of people who worked outdoors – that is, farmers and other country folk. You can imagine the scholarly minds of the Renaissance didn’t weigh too heavily on their testimonies. Then in 1794 a meteorite shower fell on the town of Siena in Italy. Not only was Siena a town, it was a town with a university. The testimony of the townsfolk, including well-to-do church ministers and tourists, was impossible to deny and the reports written up in scholarly publications. Siena played a crucial part in the process of myth becoming fact.

Where early science required authorities and written evidence to turn myth into fact, ASRM shows that something more democratic can achieve the same result. Discussion among ordinary people on the internet provided validation that the unnamed feeling was a shared one. Suddenly many individuals who might have thought of themselves as unusual were able to recognise that they were a single group, with a common experience.

There is a blind spot in psychology for individual differences. ASMR has some similarities with synaesthesia (the merging of the senses where colours can have tastes, for example, or sounds produce visual effects). Both are extremes of normal sensation, which exist for some individuals but not others. For many years synaesthesia was a scientific backwater, a condition viewed as unproductive to research, perhaps just the product of people’s imagination rather than a real sensory phenomenon. This changed when techniques were developed that precisely measured the effects of synaesthesia, demonstrating that it was far more than people’s imagination. Now it has its own research community, with conferences and papers in scientific journals.

Perhaps ASMR will go the same way. Some people are certainly pushing for research into it. As far as I know there are no systematic scientific studies on ASMR. Since I was quoted in that newspaper article, I’ve been contacted regularly by people interested in the condition and wanting to know about research into it. When people hear that their unnamed feeling has a name they are drawn to find out more, they want to know the reality of the feeling, and to connect with others who have it. Something common to all of us wants to validate our inner experience by having it recognised by other people, and in particular by the authority of science. I can’t help – almost all I know about ASMR is in this column you are reading now. For now all we have is a name, but that’s progress.

20 Comments

  1. Posted May 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    This American Life, a popular radio show in the US, recently had a 14 minute segment about ASMR. If you don’t want to pay to hear it, you can access it on Youtube here.

  2. Gail Thornton
    Posted May 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tom, v interesting article. Have never come across this before. Is it possible you could post your BBCFuture article here too, as it’s not available to those of us in UK?

  3. Posted May 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I recently attended a Sufi “Dance for Peace” event where I think most of the participants were experiencing nonstop ASMR. In fact, the most boring activity in the word, which is meditation, seems to be custom-made for the experience.

    Personally, I experience the same effect when learning new things, which requires a lot of concentration. For example, reading instruction manuals of computer coding, then trying it and watching it work generates the same feeling for me. Some people are addicted to learning for that reason. Others may call it super boring.

    Also probably a related effect is what I call “sprung muscle” syndrome. This may occur while doing delicate electronics work, when you have complete control over your hands. When your attention wanders, your muscles may spontaneously “pop” and cause damage. This is why you should pull your hands away from your work precisely when finished. But when it happens there is a pleasurable feeling that accompanies it. Sort of like a physiological corrolary to the brain effect.

    • Posted May 15, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

      Makes me wonder how long chakra religions have been around. Seems like it’s relatively new this century in the west.

    • Chris Noone
      Posted May 15, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      The effect you describe experiencing while learning new things requiring a lot of concentration is might be Flow, a unique physiological and mental state which can occur when one’s skills are being pushed to the limit by their current challenge. Its that feeling of being in the zone. Lots of interesting research on it, pioneered by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Meditation has been suggested as an effective way of increasing the likelihood of experiencing flow but few studies have directly examined this.

    • Hejrt
      Posted January 14, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Yeah…you have no idea what you’re talking about lol not at all the same feeling. Not. At. All. If you bothered to look into the 1000′s of videos online, dedicated to those who really have/use ASMR, you’d understand. It’s very difficult, almost unheard of, for someone to trigger their own ASMR…and Yoga???…really??….not so sure about that.

  4. Posted May 14, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting article.
    Is it ok if I translate it? There’s even less information or articles about ASMR in Spanish.
    I’m 26, I’m from Mexico and I have had this feeling since I was a little kid (like 6 years old or earlier) but like its mentioned in here, I had no idea what it was and I remember I told my grandma about it… she just ignored it, she probably thought I was lying or that it was my imagination. I never mentioned it again.
    Few days ago I saw a post on Facebook from a contact I never talk to xD and he was talking about how funny it was for him when people called him crazy or lier when he talked to them about his ASMR condition. I got curious and typed on google “ASMR” and wow that’s the “thing” I feel when certain people with “nice” soft voice tone talks to me or explains something to me, when I get a haircut, when I see people doing handicrafts and hear the sounds of paper folding and being cut by scissors, when someone puts make up on me, when turning book pages, etc. Now I’m looking for more people who have felt this too. I decided to talk about on my Facebook profile and I already found 3 more people, one of them being my very best friend for 14 years or so and we have never said anything to the other about this!
    This ASMR needs to be paid attention and it would be wonderful to find out more about it.

  5. shargash
    Posted May 14, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    With me, ASMR requires

    (1) a person speaking directly to me
    (2) in a soft voice
    (3) in a non-threatening situation and
    (4) doing something that is not in itself very interesting, but which is often accompanied by pleasant, irregular sounds.

    The YouTube videos designed to trigger ASMR nearly all follow that pattern. I can’t recall call a video ever triggering it in me. Haircuts and interviews are the sorts of things that do it.

    I always assumed it was related to hypnosis.

  6. shargash
    Posted May 14, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    With me, ASMR is triggered by a person speaking directly to me in a soft voice in a non-threatening situation and doing something that is not in itself very interesting, but is often accompanied by pleasant, irregular sounds. The YouTube videos designed to trigger ASMR all seem to follow that pattern.

    I always assumed it was related to hypnosis.

  7. Bill
    Posted May 15, 2013 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    I’m betting that there are more unnamed feelings than there are named ones. Humans like to name things so they can refer to them someday, but to do that the feelings have to be useful somehow. Something like logic makes a connection between recognition and usefulness so it’s remembered under several titles. If it doesn’t have a couple of references, it evaporates because there’s no way to get to it. To prove this hypothesis, I’m naming it “Blugh”, and it’s useful for making >1 point connections.

  8. ryca
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I really take offense to this author’s smug tone. I have had ASMR all of my life. Of course, I had no idea what it was and thought that I was the only one who got body tingles when someone whispered or made other certain noises. One day last year, it occurred to me to search youtube for a video of somebody whispering. Lo and behold, there was a gold mind of them. I was really shocked, and learned that I wasn’t the only one. Apparently other people who had ASMR thought to make a video believing there were others like them. So the ASMR is not the phenomenon; YOUTUBE is the phenomenon. Thank’s to the internet we are discovering so many things that have never been discussed before. Thanks to anonymity of the internet, people are less afraid to put their secrets out there in hopes of finding others like them. A lot of people like myself thought this “feeling” was weird and we never talked about it in real life, fearing people would think we were freaks. So that is WHY you think it is a phenomenon. Just because you don’t experience it doesn’t make it not real. It’s like saying if you never experienced cancer, then it must not be real. Ridiculous , right? I’ve had it since I was born and I’m sure it’s been around through out since the dawn of time.

    P.S. ASMR IS THE OFFICIAL NAME.

  9. Posted May 26, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    If it helps, the tingles are felt in the surrounding muscles of the brain, and skull. The actual brain itself feels no tingles. The same with headaches, we feel the pressure on our skull, not inside our brain, it’s why blood thinners work, it frees up the clogs causing the pressure… Tough to think that after decades and decades of aspirin, this isn’t common knowledge.

  10. Posted June 16, 2013 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Great article. I think one of the biggest problems ASMR has is that it is a sensation that is so hard to describe to those that have not experienced it. Though, for those of us who do get ASMR, the first time we hear someone else try and explain it we know exactly what they are talking about without ever having heard of it before.

  11. Dave
    Posted June 23, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I too have experienced this since a very young age, for more than 20 years now. Watching “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross when I was about 5-6 years old is where it all started. Up until very recently, I thought I was alone. It doesn’t have to be direct speaking to me, but that does help to trigger it. A close examination by a doctor, or dentist, with a soft suithing voice will do. Even a movie or video with those things is a trigger.

  12. Jessie
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with ryca. As someone who has been experiencing this ‘feeling’ for as long as I can remember in response to certain triggers, I found the author’s tone presumptuous, condescending, and entirely unscientific (not to mention the careless typos). This has nothing to do with myths, nor did it “begin to exist” in 2010. Please do not write about things unless you have a comprehensive understanding of the topic and have done your due diligence.

  13. Darren
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Opposite for me – I thought it was something everyone had. I also read Rhodri’s article and was amazed to find it had a name and was rare. Don’t like the name ‘Braingasm’ mentioned in the article though. It’s nothing like an orgasm for the brain and isn’t a sexual sensation.

    Anyway, it’s definitely a real phenomenon, take it from me. I’ve watched some of the ASMR videos on Youtube and the usual things set it off for me. Brief shivers down the neck and spine mostly, but sometimes longer waves. Feels a bit self-indulgent triggering it like this though.

  14. auguste
    Posted August 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I always feel it in my throat. I agree that any -gasm word for it implies a sexual aspect that is never present. To describe it best, it is like being a cat purring on someone’s lap, eyes closed while being stroked… Not wanting to move so that it doesn’t end…

  15. laelia
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    i feel it in my throat and chest, sort of. it’s very hard to explain, but i’ve experienced it all my life. my brother has too, and when we were little we used to whisper things like “cookies and cakes” to one another to trigger it. the hard c sounds, the whispers…whew.

    bob ross, the sound of rain hitting an umbrella (especially during an older golf game where the announcer spoke in a whisper and people clapped gently), slow crinkles, pages turning as heard over the phone, horses clip-clopping, typing on an older keyboard…there are all sorts of specific things that do it for me. i’ve never been ashamed of my sensations – i would mention to people, “oh, i love that sound. it makes me feel so relaxed and sleepy.”

    lately my husband and i had been indulging in bob ross videos every night before falling asleep. he actually watches them. i just want to hear that voice and the sounds of him painting. imagine my surprise when i caught the “this american life” episode yesterday about ASMR. as soon as she mentioned bob ross, i knew she knew…

  16. Mabel
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    For me, it’s certain voices. Bob Ross is definitely one of them. It’s mostly in my throat, and is a sort of pleasant fullness that spreads up into my head. Sometimes sounds can trigger it, like the crackling of a fire, but without the pops.

  17. Melanie
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Interesting…I can bring on this sensation just by THINKING about a soft voice. I’m naturally predisposed to this and have been since a child! I always wondered what it was!


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