Friday 18 October 2019

'It's a kind of orgasm of the brain' - the new relaxation phenomenon

The latest relaxation phenomenon sees practitioners seek 'brain tingles'. Sophie White describes how the internet discovered an entirely new experience

Maria Viktorovna
Maria Viktorovna

Sophie White

I was sitting cross-legged in a field the first time I heard of a trippy sensation apparently experienced by a small section of the population: autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). It was Electric Picnic, so one might imagine we were swapping stories of illicit substances, however as a group of thirty-somethings, we were actually kibitzing about our various physical ailments. Among the recommendations for bad backs (nothing beats reformer pilates, doncha know) and new eating regimes (as we ate burgers and drank beers), I threw in my new, accidentally discovered cure for chronic insomnia.

I told the creaking assembled of how every night I listen to the same audio book that featured a whispering woman's voice - Hunger by American feminist author, Roxane Gay - and that this had become a powerful method of relaxation.

"What's the book about?" asked the others. "Well, it's actually a pretty harrowing read, but I guess it's not the words she's saying but how she's saying them," I explained. At this point, one of the group asked if I'd ever heard of ASMR and so began my very enlightening, pleasurable and relaxing journey down one of the weirder rabbit holes of the internet.

ASMR only got its name in 2007 after a man who had the sensations since childhood began a subreddit chat forum asking if anyone else knew these feelings. Described as tingles or a kind of orgasm of the brain, it is triggered by specific sounds, whispers and repetitive tasks involving the hands of others. For those with ASMR, watching or hearing these stimuli results in a hugely pleasurable sensation that can start in the brain or neck and travels up the spine.

Since the mid-2000s, knowledge of the phenomenon spread through the online world and there are now hundreds of thousands of hours of video on YouTube created by so-called ASMRtists dedicated to triggering 'whispering community', as they often describe themselves. Before ASMR was discovered, people with ASMR got the sensation from unintentional sources.

"I have a memory of being in primary school and sitting beside my friend Niamh as she was going through my pencil case," actress and writer Mags McAuliffe tells me. "She was looking at all the pencils and pens, clicking the ones that could click, trying out each of the colours on the fat pen… examining every sticker or random bit of paper wedged in the corners before neatly putting everything back in, tops all facing the same direction and zipping the case closed… I had the same reaction to it that I'm having now, a massive ASMR tingle sensation."

McAuliffe convinced other friends to re-enact the careful attention being paid to her possessions. "They would tentatively agree to it but too often would get bored or ask, 'is this it Margaret?' and I wouldn't respond. If I've to respond to them, something is broken and it goes away."

The kind of personal attention McAuliffe alludes to plays a big role in the whispering community which is interesting given we live in a time where communication has become a largely automated affair and life in general is an increasingly less tactile experience.

The whispering aspect emulates the physical closeness somewhat diminished by living in a digital age, while the audio triggers conjure up elements of frisson, the phenomenon of music giving you chills. According to some studies, only about two thirds of people experience what some researchers have dubbed this 'skin orgasm'. ASMR could also be compared to synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which a person experiences 'crossed' responses to stimuli - when stimulation of one sense, like hearing, leads to involuntary experiences in a second sense such as vision.

Both frisson and synaesthesia have considerably more scientific basis with studies exploring each conducted as far back as the early 20th century. The scientific study of ASMR is woefully light: two psychologists I approached for this piece had been previously unaware of the condition and reticent about offering any conjecture on the causes or therapeutic potential of ASMR. It does sound a bit makey uppy, however the figures on the YouTube channels are pretty staggering: up to half a million people subscribe to videos of gift wrapping, whispering, role plays, scrunching sounds, brushing sounds and personal attention.

Successful channels have over one million subscribers, averaging 350,000 views a day and according to one Forbes report, ASMR videos is a lucrative enough field that some popular ASMRtists make a living through ad revenue alone.

Many sceptics have suggested that the stimulus is sexual. Theresa Veltri, a researcher on a UK-based team investigating the phenomenon, acknowledges this aspect of the subculture. "They're moving their hands slowly and touching things, and they have these whispery voices," she says. "I can understand how that is relaxing, but when someone's touching phallic-like objects..."

However, those who experience the sensations maintain that the tingles are not connected to sexual responses but rather are reported to be profoundly relaxing.

The experience roots one firmly in the moment, it seems to disrupt thoughts and produces a state of 'flow'. The 'flow' state, often observed in children playing, was introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state in which our energy is so focused on a single task that even the passage of time goes unnoticed. "It's like you're in a trance so you're not aware of anything else and the only thing that matters is stretching out the amount of tingle time before it goes away," says McAuliffe.

Anecdotally, ASMR has been suggested to have real potential in treating insomnia, depression and anxiety, though claims by the community should be treated with caution says Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University. He described his concerns in a BBC report, saying that people with acute mental illnesses might attempt to treat themselves using this method and likening it to "snake oil".

However, other researchers are eager to expand the scientific base for ASMR with the aim of eventually applying their findings to treatment of insomnia, chronic pain and perhaps even chronic mental illnesses.

The first peer-reviewed paper was published in 2015 by Dr Nick Davis and Emma Barratt of Swansea University and interviewed 500 people. Findings suggested that ASMR "provides temporary relief in mood for those suffering from depression, with many individuals consciously using it for this purpose. Many reported that even in the absence of tingling sensations, they their mood and symptoms of pain had been improved", though Davis was quick to caution that anyone suffering from symptoms of depression or persistently low mood needs to seek professional help.

Interestingly the report also showed that there was a relatively high prevalence of synaesthesia among participants suggesting that there may be a link between the two.

As a newly indoctrinated member of the tingle cult, writing this piece was nearly unbearably stimulating but, hey, at least my insomnia is cured. I may become a full-time loiterer around the gift-wrapping service this Christmas - and perhaps I'll see you there. Tingle all the way.

Three YouTube ASMRtists to try

Gentle Whispering

Subscribers: Over one million.

Russian-born Maria Viktorovna of Gentle Whispering is one of the most popular ASMRtists. Her specialty is whispering in Russian and one of her personal attention videos has nearly 13 million views.


Subscribers: 472,601.

As the name of her channel suggests, Ally Maque takes viewer requests. Interestingly she wasn't 'born' with ASMR but developed it after being introduced to the community. She does quite imaginative role plays, a particular favourite is Time Travel Tuesdays where she combines 'tingles with nostalgia'.

ASMR Angel

Subscribers: 95,000.

Charlotte Angel is a UK ASMRtist who specialises in very naturalistic role plays.

Irish Independent

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