Hazel works for an NGO in Amsterdam, and describes how in the 1980s she took her parents who were visiting her there to see the Whirling Dervishes. “The ritual fascinated me, and the entire audience was electrified. You could have heard a pin drop. But my parents insisted we leave during the interval. Over a beer my father laughed in disbelief at how so many people could be duped into paying money to see a bunch of guys bowing and spinning around. I remembered this when this year I watched a role-play video on YouTube featuring someone pretending to give you a haircut. I now believe every one of the captivated members of that audience was in the minority of people who experience ASMR.”
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response and describes a feeling of well-being known as attention-induced euphoria. Those who have experienced it talk of a ‘brain tingle’, ‘shivers on the scalp’ and ‘goose pimples on the neck’, a sense not of joy exactly but of satisfaction and contentment. The feelings always go back to childhood, and were often experienced when other children played with their hair, or during a dictation, or when the teacher wrote on the board and the class was attentive. Later in life these same sensations recur during religious rituals– Holy Communion for example – or during a medical examination, hair cut or interview of some sort. The key seems to be non-threatening attention, and often gentle individual care, where you have another person’s full attention and they are focused on you. Some scientists have pointed out the similarity to physical grooming in primates, where the aim is not to clean but to bond, or the purring in a cat when stroked, and that it also induces pleasure in animals.
“When I was a child I sometimes experienced a pleasant tingly, shivery feeling in my scalp when someone touched or stroked me. I don’t believe it was sexual, but was always afraid to mention it in case anyone thought I was weird. It is such a relief to suddenly find ASMR is now “a thing” “.
There are now thousands of ASMR videos online. Many feature young women speaking to the camera in a soft voice, often a whisper, and assuming a maternal, reassuring role. Some have foreign accents, enabling the listener to move easily beyond the meaning and into the sensation of sound, and many feature crackling, the uncapping of bottles and ruffling noises into binaural microphones to simulate sounds being made close to each ear. There are people pretending to give you a ‘cranial nerve exam’ featuring ‘follow the light and finger’, typing sounds and close-up personal attention, which appears to be the key. Others feature the sounds of pages being turned, the tapping of lacquered nails and the crinkling of new shirts. Another video is of a young woman showing you her Middle Eastern spice collection giving you her full attention while demanding nothing from you.
“I recall another ASMR moment, when I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language,” says Colin, an aid worker. “When I was approached with a toy by a young child, I expressed interest in it, as I could not contribute to the conversation the adults were having around us. The child responded by bringing me, one by one, all of her cuddly toys and explaining to me in baby noises who they were. I experienced shivers over my scalp and the back of my neck. I could have sat there for hours and have hundreds of toys explained to me in this language I didn’t speak, frozen in the delicious moment. You could describe it as a sort of pleasurable seizure.”
No research has yet been done into ASMR, but what seems to be happening is the triggering of the body’s relaxation response. Like meditation it is possible the brain begins to generate theta waves, the waves of deep intuition and the magical mind, but unlike meditation it is triggered by an external force, one which is non-threatening and which requires nothing of us, but instead appears to be serving us, giving us care, attention and honouring us. Endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin may be the associated hormones.
The placebo effect has been explained by the tender nurturing effect of a health-care provider – the doctor is the placebo. The doctor can also be the nocebo if he/she announces “You have an incurable disease”.
It may be that the intellectualised world in which we live has all but eliminated the relaxed, ‘cared-for’ response, which in some cases appears to get more difficult to trigger with age. Feeling deep connection with our being and the environment is not something Urban Man is used to, and thus these feelings may seem surprising when they occur. Those who for years said, “I thought it was only me,” are now seeing that few human experiences are confined to only one person. If the most popular ASMR videos are currently reaching over million hits worldwide, something is clearly happening here, and it is clearly “a thing”. Fans report that the videos alleviate stress, anxiety and insomnia, and it is this that makes it relevant to anti-ageing. Anything that relieves stress levels, induces the relaxation response and rekindles a sense of connection to the Source of all that is, slows down ageing.
It might therefore be worth checking these videos out. We may find we are part of the ASMR-experiencing minority.