Some Notes on the Emergence of ASMR Theory
by John F. Kersey
after Andrea Seigel
ASMR is: auto-sensory meridian response/a psycho-physical empathic synesthesia/higher spiritual intelligence/that baby monkey feeling/to humans as being caught in the headlights is to deer /to humans as purring is to cats/a contemporary manifestation of primal mother-goddess worship/evidence of a congenital evolutionary trend toward group-consciousness, at least among an apparent class of aesthetes.
None of this would be possible without Andrea Seigel. If she hadn’t written and then aired “A Tribe Called Rest” on This American Life in 2013, I would never have known it was a thing. It was one of those moments: I literally dropped what I was doing (dishes) when she related how, as a child, her friend with the melodious voice would come into her room and pick up singular objects one at a time and move them in her hands and coo in a brushstroke monotone that gave her a particular pleasure. Seigel says she knows how weird it sounds, but some people’s voices—even the boring librarian at school, who read in a monotone—“turned [her] head into a snow globe.”
Unlike Seigel—and apparently a lot of other receivers—I did not assume I was unique, weird, or alone. For a decade, I occasionally said things to my students and friends like, “You know how sometimes someone will be talking to you, and something about their voice makes your scalp tingle, like someone’s massaging your actual brain, and you just want them to go on and on …” and I’d go on, piling on the metaphors and even mentioning Bob Ross, trying to get at something I thought was obvious, while the person I was talking to nodded unconvincingly and ummed and welled and made non-committal affirmations like, “Yeah … I mean … sometimes I get really relaxed …” For some reason, this overwhelming lack of enthusiastic recognition on the part of literally everyone with whom I ever breached the subject was not enough to make me doubt the universality of this most sacred sensation, the one I’d cherished my whole life.
It takes place primarily in or on the skull. It is tactile and hypnotic. I think it probably has to do with seratonin or oxytocin, and the nerves around the roots of your hair. Many compare it to a scalp massage or getting your hair shampooed—except (and for me this is the defining distinction between this and other forms of tactile pleasure readily available to a majority of people) it is activated audio-visually. You just want to watch someone, listen to them. You want them to talk to you or show you something. It feels good, the way that cleaning your ear with a q-tip feels good. Except there’s no q-tip, just a voice.
So what is it? No one knows, and apparently no one has cared enough in all of medical history to make a scientific study or diagnosis. My friend Dani calls it her “baby monkey feeling” and has done so all her adult life, at various times mistaking it (she claims) for homosexual attraction. Some people call it brain tingles. These days, on (and perhaps because of) the internet, it’s called ASMR: auto-sensory meridian response—which we can all agree is a charmless and sterile initialism. It’s vague, maybe even evasive pseudo-scientific jargon, meridian standing euphemistically for “orgasm,” a word signifying a sensation that, in turn, is at best metaphorical for the sort of pleasure response ASMR is meant to denote. Regardless of its unwieldiness, the term appears to have consolidated currency. For lack of a more appropriate universal signifier—at least until the ascendency of baby monkey feeling—this is the term we are stuck with.
ASMR is not sex.
In the burgeoning ASMR community, this comparison is rarely granted even the dignity of recognition.
It would appear that several female ASMR artists’ careers have been either derailed of temporarily suspended as a result of sexist or inappropriately sexual comments left under their videos; some guy looking around youtube for softcore porn stumbles on a string of videos of girls chewing gum in extreme close-up or tickling your imaginary face with a feather while whispering, and he unloads a charmless stinkbomb—the one that, either because of its unique vulgarity or because of a cumulative discomfort, destroys a channel, drives a young woman out of her avatar and back into her real-life personality (college, work, relationship, art … anyway, out of the full-time pleasure-provider role).
I’ve learned about this phenomenon—the disrespect of young female ASMR artists that leads to their retreat from the form—obliquely, from references on the very surface of certain ASMR videos; often in the description, or on first page of comments among the most-liked, I’ll find verbiage like: “Welcome back” or “We missed you” or “Stay strong” or “Thanks to the whole community for keeping this place troll-free.” The intrusion of explicit genital sexuality into the arena of ASMR is so alien to its essence that most artists seem disinclined even to address it within the form. It’s utterly anathema. In germane terms: a major turn-off.
What’s weird is: ASMR is like porn in a lot of ways other than sex. As Andrea Seigel pointed out, “it operate[s] a little bit like porn—all the searching for videos, trying to find exactly the right moment or performer, developing very specific tastes,” etc. And they are both addictive. These surface similarities are the result of the fact that ASMR and porn are both attempting to present the illusion of human communion while achieving comparable, but diametrical, sensory results. What was once only possible under certain conditions in the material world—human interaction, and its attendance psycho-chemical response—is now available on-demand in the virtual realm.
For me—and I imagine most other ASMR experiencers—the sensation precedes sexuality by a long shot. Maybe what Freud referred to as “infant sexuality” is more akin to ASMR than to adult horniness; maybe ASMR and sexuality descend from a common ancestor, though they are as different as birds and reptiles. Both are ancient, primal sensations, issuing from parts of the brain long relegated to myth; and to come to terms with one’s ASMR is as deep an act of self-realization as any psycho-sexual analysis.
Know thy triggers, self.
The first time I remember it happening was during Reading Rainbow when I was a kid, maybe six. Lavar was at one of those colonial-era reconstructed villages. There’s a montage of clips of different kids all looking at an antique blacksmithed tool of indeterminate application and making predictions as to what its purpose was. The final kid in the montage sighed as he spun the arcane tool and droned, “Well … I think it’s to cook bacon …” and he went on, describing how the bacon was laid in the fryer—“straight,” he emphasized, repeating “you put the bacon straight in, the bacon in straight”—and how it was placed into the fire like so, “and you just fry it”; and he had a bit of a lisp (‘fwy it,’ ‘stwaight in”) and he seemed a bit tired or even medicated; also his idea was so damn clever. As I got older, I took to rewinding just that clip and listening to it three, four, five times. The same thing has since happened with certain quiet filler tracks on rock albums (“Message to Harry Manback” by Tool, that unnamed track from Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch where her little brother and she whisper back and forth for half-a-minute). But mostly it happened when certain people talked to me at certain times. The preconditions seemed indeterminable. The only non-random datum was the voice. It was always about soft voices, a function of soft voices. I thought.
Since the advent of ASMR as an internet phenomenon, I can reflect on recent real-life ASMR experiences analytically: a young woman and ten sheets of paper and a florescent-lit room and an air of concentration. At the time I’d wondered: why her voice, why now? Why not all the times we’d previously spoken? Now I recall the scene and the triggers pop, conspicuous elements of design: the chunky rings, her fingernails tapping on the tabletop, the matte paper turning over and sliding down the surface of her hands, an occasional pursed “umm,” the whole world purring in beta-state static for that instant. I knew none of this at the time, just felt the fizz. As far as I knew, my experiences with ASMR had never involved jewelry. But since Andrea Seigel’s reportage, and my subsequent investigation of The Water Whispers Ilse’s “jewelery” clip, I have realized that jewelry has often been there. I never knew the importance, even the necessity, of gaudiness, or the specificity of sound: stone tapping stone. The hollow plunk of heavy Dutch coins-turned-broaches dropped into velvet-lined boxes. Or tapping. Or paper. All these things I have loved without knowing them.
Now, perhaps unfortunately, I see the message for the medium: accents, lisps, sibilance; the sound of ice or rock candy knocking on teeth; chunky jewelry, marbles knocking together, brush strokes and fingernails; wood, glass, stone; repetition and redundancy; monotony; sub-vocalization; humming, purring, cooing; breath. The components form a perfect OHM, oceanic, uteran, sublime. This is the secret Bob Ross knew, perhaps without knowing.
While Bob Ross is generally understood to be the old master, he is not the only master.
Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting was, beyond being a show about painting, a feat of mass-media ASMR artistry: perhaps the first, and maybe a naïve one. Ross is a single-switch test for ASMR: if you ever got a tingly scalp and became entirely subdued on your couch after happening to catch an episode on PBS one lazy afternoon, and if, when it finished, you wished that the network would just cycle through an entire season of episodes, one after another, all evening, and if you considered with glee the unadulterated pleasure you might experience if you perhaps owned a season or two of the show on DVD, then you know what ASMR is.
An analysis of Bob Ross’s performance reads like a checklist of ASMR triggers: assiduous hands: check; wet mouth: check; Southern accent: check; brush taps: check; one-on-one attention: check; positive, nurturing monologue: check. What is remarkable is that it took half-a-century for us to crack the code. Everyone pinned the show’s popularity on whimsy, some sort of post-Rockwellian kitsch aesthetic, and when the show enjoyed renewed popularity in the wake of Ross’s death, it seemed as though the revival was ironic and campy (e.g. stoners in Happy Trees T-shirts with Bob Ross airbrushed on the front). But the love was real. Tactile, even.
Now on the internet (read: Youtube) the program Ross set forward is presented baldly, stripped of the guise of instruction. Sure, the tutorial—as a form—is still prevalent; but the practical application is at best slim, probably illusory. The function (the meridian response) requires a performance medium—this could take the form of a sushi-rolling tutorial or a jewelry exhibition or a shopping haul ramble or even some weird-ass sci-fi-themed role play—but the medium is just a vessel. It matters very little that Bob Ross is painting. This is the mystery of the form, and something that might strike non-experiencers as contradictory or dubious.
The new masters of the meridian response are overwhelmingly in the good-witch vein. The medium engenders a lot of face- and/or hand-time, single-perspective shots. They have the advantage of retrospection: half-a-century of national obsession with television, from Bob Ross to QVC, a spectrum of nascent stimuli that was to become the online whisper culture, then the full-blown ASMR phenomenon. In short: the new masters of the form have inherited a massive grimoire and have begun to annotate it. How they will use the formulae, as they become even more explicit, remains to be witnessed.
ASMR is love and communion and pleasure … what if its shadow incarnation is hypnosis and manipulation and compulsion?
Consider Maria of Gentle Whispering, the contemporary empress of ASMR artistry. I have watched her videos for hours on end. My friend Dani, in an email, once told me she felt so avolitional that she didn’t want to do anything “except sit in bed and listen to Maria sell me refrigerators.” Maria has a penchant for positive-affirmation and viewer-centric banter—things like “you are appreciated” and “I would like to protect you, to comfort you.” In her most celebrated performance (something like five-million views and climbing daily), she actually encourages you to “forget about your trouble, whatever it is” and to go to a place “where nothing matters,” admonishing you that she can take you there, “if you trust me.” Her persuasiveness, as she coaxes me in her velveteen Russian accent into blissful non-activity, satisfies certain cold-war fantasies of the feline Soviet-spy who uses feminine wiles to lull the operative/citizen into a state of submission conducive to mind-control programming. And even if we dispense with the red-scare kitsch, isn’t there something inherently Oedipal about most ASMR performances?
Every year, an increasing number of people finish David Foster Wallace’s 1997 Infinite Jest, and so an increasing number of people are capable of understanding the uncanny parallels between that novel’s dystopian vision and the ASMR phenomenon. In Wallace’s book, various parties seek a master copy of a film so transfixing that it paralyzes its viewers, rendering them avolitional and infantile. Although the book is ingeniously obscure on the film’s content, it may consist of a single shot from an infant’s perspective (utilizing a special lens that mimics infantile optics) showing a mother’s face, close up, cooing “I’m sorry” over and over again. That is to say, it’s an ASMR video. The ultimate one.
The regressive/infantilizing implications of the meridian response are obvious. The most effective ASMR videos give the impression of a mother-child bonding session, whether through spoken affirmation or through deliberate, pedagogic modeling of behavior (picture your mother folding the laundry while you, who have never folded laundry in your life, follow the deft movements of her hands, rapt as by a god). Matched with popular Freudianism, ASMR’s apparent mother-complex can seem embarrassing or dangerous. Like isn’t this maybe something most of us grew out of; and we, the receivers, are somehow arrested? Condemned for eternity to fawn over a woman’s lips and the sound of her breath as she forms syllables? And how might this be used against me by capitalist or dogmatic forces?
The idea that it could be necromancy—that it could be used to hypnotize, manipulate, and overmaster—unnerves me, but ultimately strikes me as an illogical paranoia. The ability to induce ASMR must be counted as some sort of white magick. It cannot be malevolent because it is inextricable from the oral, tonal, and visual transmission of good will. Perhaps this is the true distinction between ASMR and porn: the former unifies, the latter objectifies. ASMR is intimate, porn is voyeuristic. One’s relationship with the ASMR artist is fraternal, even maternal; the porn-relationship is one of addiction, compulsion, enslavement. These antipodal differences are obvious in the content.
I guess the point is: we should be warders of this power. Just as the whisper community insulates itself against trolls and perverts, so should we beat away that complimentary form of exploitation: commercialism. Don’t let them do to ASMR what they did to sex, what they did to sports, what they did to beauty. Whisper a spell against hatred. Watch a loving affirmation role-play. Be true.
What if all the world is ASMR?
Since I heard Andrea Seigel’s piece (and subsequently uncovered the trove of videos in the ASMR/whisper community on YouTube) I have manifested a novel ability to self-induce. Just thinking about some of my favorite clips (Maria touching belts and whispering in Russian, Ilse gently knocking Dutch wooden blocks together, Allie of ASMR Requests tapping the golden surface of a Legend of Zelda cartridge) can bring on preliminary tingles. One afternoon, I sat in the children’s room at the local library and watched my two-year-old daughter and another girl, maybe three, manipulate colorful foam blocks on a soft carpet while they burbled half-language to no one in particular; my head swam in champagne. It gets so intense sometimes that I feel it in absurd situations: in traffic, in overcrowded restaurants, during professional-development powerpoint presentations. A car horn in the distance triggers it. Yakety-yaking busybodies in the grocery store. The sound of the washer-dryer. Etc.
I give it to my daughter—at least, I hope, for her sake and the future’s—when I read to her or sing her to sleep. I give it to my students, at the expense of their education and the benefit of their humanity. I give it to myself in times of stress and sadness, like masturbation without the spent feeling, or crying without the humiliation. I turn the world into love again. It’s a pre-fall sort of feeling. The feeling we forgot.
It cannot be stated better than Andrea Seigel did: turned my head into a snow globe. That’s the whole world doing that. If you let it. If you trust it.
John F. Kersey is a writer, musician, and high school English teacher. He lives in Vermont with his family.