I am 7 years old, in the health room at my elementary school, on deck for a lice check by the school nurse. Robert Rothrock was hastily removed from class earlier in the day, and we are told that the rest of us second graders are vulnerable.
I’m up. The school nurse explores my scalp deftly, her fingers stimulating the nerves like tiny egg beaters, causing a sensation I can describe only as goosebumps on my brain. The brainbumps explode from the crown of my head and spill south beyond my scalp onto my neck and down my spine. I am captivated and never want the lice check to end.
The nurse did not discover lice that day, but I discovered a phenomenon I’ve never talked about. Not because I was embarrassed or ashamed of my head feeling like a snow globe in response to unusual stimuli, but because I assumed everyone experienced a tingly cascade of sparkles when the school nurse searched their hair for lice, or their mother scratched their back, or the optometrist fitted them for eyeglasses. Don’t you?
Turns out you might not; not everyone has the ability to experience this scientifically unverified phenomenon. And I learned only recently that it has a name: “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” referring to a range of pleasurable physiological responses (tingles or chills on the head, along the spine, or throughout the body) to tactile, auditory, and/or visual triggers. For those of us lucky enough to be on Team ASMR, the result is an intense or trance-like euphoria, calmness, relaxation, or sleepiness.
Although these sensory experiences are often referred to as “brain orgasms,” they are decidedly NOT sexual. I swear. (I told you last time that my mom reads this blog, so why would I besmirch my reputation by featuring salacious content here?)
The triggers for those who experience ASMR vary widely, but most involve the suggestion of intimate, personal attention. Among auditory stimuli, in particular, several characteristics are consistent:
- Soft, soothing voices
- Whispering at close range
- Even, measured speaking tones
- Mouth noises like lip smacking or sucking on hard candy
- Tapping sounds
- Rustling or soft crinkling sounds, as of paper or plastic
- Bob Ross
Bob Ross? You read it right. Bob Ross: he of the bucolic landscapes and soothing baritone. Since his death in 1995, clips from his popular show, The Joy of Painting, have attracted millions of views and more than 256,000 subscribers on YouTube. As for the ASMR community, his popularity is likely attributed to his soft voice, audible brush strokes on canvas, and seemingly personal attention to his viewers. Read more about the Afro-topped landscape artist’s posthumous YouTube star status here.
While Bob Ross is by far the most popular ASMRtist on YouTube, his effect is accidental. His goal is only to teach us how to “caress the canvas” and pull “happy clouds” from our “almighty brushes.” The number of people who actually produce YouTube videos to elicit the ASMR response in viewers — and the range of material and environments they create — is staggering. For your consideration: an ASMRtist unboxes a Lego set, creates a barbershop role play, offers 10 hours of tapping and crinkling sounds, draws and whispers, and teaches you how to fold towels.
Unluckily, I am a member of an ASMR subset whose triggers rely on unintentionality; the videos produced intentionally to elicit the ASMR response don’t crack my egg and I’m left underwhelmed by a phony Pollock piece. In fact, I believe most ASMRtists cross the line well into the absurd and bizarre.
But who am I to judge?
If you need me, I’ll be in my office with Bob Ross, pulling happy trees from my almighty brush.
Have YOU ever experienced ASMR? I dare you to admit it in the comments below.