What a time to be alive! Shrouded in ignorance for centuries, members of the human race have, thanks to the internet, at last unlocked our third eye, the key to all religious experience, the next stage of human consciousness.
It's called ASMR, or, in more casual terms, the ability to experience "brain orgasms." How do you know if you've been anointed with this rare and wondrous condition? Symptoms may include sitting alone in your room as a video of the 2 BEST PLASTIC CHAIRS ON THE MARKET & WHERE TO BUY THEM causes sparks to shoot down your spine or feeling obscenely relaxed as a woman with a Russian accent spends 20 minutes whispering the contents of a New York Times article into your headphones. Side effects include developing a mild resentment towards mind-muggles who don't derive similar sensations from such videos.
OK, so maybe ASMR isn't a harbinger of some new plane of existence, but it's not every century that a new human sensory experience is discovered. Imagine what it would have been like to be around when cavemen first realized their noses could smell. A similar mix of hysteria, curiosity, mayhem, and weirdness is what's been happening on the internet in the past decade with ASMR. By now the phenomenon has reached its tingly tentacles into all sorts of cultural institutions; in the past few months, for example, Pepsi's used the #ASMR hashtag and BuzzFeed began experimenting with delivering the news in a whisper.
The fact that ASMR became a thing basically because of the internet raises the exciting possibility that humanity may be in store for more sensory surprises as new technologies bend our nature in unexpected ways. But as I consider my own experience with ASMR, I can't help but wonder whether the impulse to share, codify, and repurpose a once-private experience may corrupt what made the sensation meaningful in the first place.
Back up a second: what the hell is ASMR?
ASMR is the acronym for autonomous sensory meridian response -- it entered mainstream consciousness about three years ago, when The Atlantic wrote a piece on the people who are able to experience "brain orgasms." These so-called orgasms, which amount more or less to pleasurable tingling in the spine and head, could be triggered by certain sounds, usually something akin to whispering or light scratching. ASMR had only really been a term for a couple years before that, and when The Atlantic disseminated its story, there had been no published research on the phenomenon.
Online forums devoted to describing and exploring the then-unnamed feeling began sprouting up as early as 2008, and it was soon thereafter that some of the kookiest origin theories, like those mentioned in the hook of this article, proliferated. The sensation attained more credibility in 2010, when it acquired the scientific-sounding name it's now known by: ASMR, which beat out other contenders like AIHO (attention induced head orgasm) and WHS (weird head sensation). It's a bit disappointing that WHS got the boot, but credibility is at stake here, I suppose.
Soon a number of ASMRtists began popping up, people who make videos of various techniques and triggers designed to provoke the tingling sensation. These videos have by now replaced unintentional videos -- like “2 BEST PLASTIC CHAIRS” -- as the primary type of ASMR material consumed.
My first flights as an ASMRnaut
To be sure, the tingly feeling associated with ASMR predates the net. My own experience with it, like that of many ASMR enthusiasts, began in elementary school when the lectures of teachers with particularly textured voices would prompt chills on the back of my neck -- especially potent for me was the soft, smooth tone of my librarian during the annual rundown of the Dewey Decimal System. But like the names of the dinosaurs or knowledge of how to make a fart sound with your armpit, this tingling feeling was quickly forgotten as elementary school came to a close.
It would have stayed that way had it not been for YouTube. In high school, I felt myself getting the same sensation watching magic-trick tutorials, LEGO unboxings, or chess puzzle videos. Why did those videos appeal to me? I thought it was because they presented a kid's excitement for the complexities and possibilities of the world. This excitement got physically embodied in the hands shuffling playing cards, tearing apart plastic, or moving pieces across the board.
The fact that the creators felt the need to produce those videos meant they wanted to share their excitement; otherwise they'd have to experience it alone, which is sad. So I felt I was fulfilling a responsibility by being a receptacle for their longing. The tingles I got weren't the main thing, they were merely a physical representation of my participation in others' wonder and enchantment, loneliness and alienation.
Only in college did I stumble upon the formal ASMR community, and was impressed that something I'd only considered privately was already being discussed and explored by thousands around the world. The internet could provide me not just with on-demand chess and magic videos, but ones explicitly designed to provoke the spine tingles I got from them, and the sound and visual manipulations of ASMRtists were so good I got the tingles to a degree more potent than ever before.
Suddenly I kind of feel like a creeper for watching...
Knowing ASMR is A THING definitely changes my relationship with the sensation. Suddenly, it seems not that I'm viewing videos because their creators need me to share their excitement, but instead because I want them to provide me the good feels, which doesn't give me a sense of responsibility, but rather something closer to greed. Instead of the longing in the videos being directed toward magic or puzzles, with the tingles being the side effect, now the tingles are the main goal and the activity occurring becomes the side show. It seems merely a way to achieve a physical reaction. Suddenly I kind of feel like a creeper for watching.
Complicating that voyeuristic guilt is the fact that ASMR is expanding into the realm of literal pornography, by way of a whole genre known as ASMRotica. In ASMR's early days, some called videos intended to trigger the tingly feeling "whisper porn," much in the way that the internet designates exceptional shots of steak or the Sierras "food porn" or "Earth porn." ASMR enthusiasts were always quick to tell you that the feeling was NOT SEXUAL, but now that's not always the case, and some in the ASMR community are uncomfortable with how the whole endeavor will be stigmatized as a result.
Of course, if ASMR is just about getting tingles, then even without its being eroticized, it certainly can be considered porn-like. Following the Supreme Court's famous definition of porn as "I know it when I see it," ASMR can look NSFW. It's already the case that many of the most popular SFW ASMRtists happen to be young, good-looking women, and there's certainly something porny about watching internet videos by yourself to achieve an orgasm, of the brain or any other variety.
There are a few obvious distinctions between whisper porn and regular old porn: ASMR doesn't cause sexual arousal (though there must be at least a few outliers who use it for that, because the internet is vast and people will get off on just about anything). Watching pornography regularly is correlated with elevated levels of depression, whereas many report ASMR to help with depression, anxiety, or insomnia. GentleWhispering, the doyen of the ASMR community, says, "We've gotten feedback from firefighters, soldiers, pilots, lawyers, single mothers, and suicidal teenagers who just watched these videos and it changed their attitude and mood for just a few minutes."
But so far there hasn't been any confirmation that the mood alterations from ASMR are long-lasting, and GentleWhispering makes it clear that watching her videos isn't a replacement for clinical treatment. There's also the inevitable darker side of ASMR videos; while they might appear less psychologically harmful than sexual porn, some people have reported ASMR addiction.
What happens when a surprising pleasure becomes clinical?
A larger problem is that the more ASMR tries to establish itself as a "real thing," by summoning science and culture to establish its basis, the more it's going to become reduced to a brain condition rather than an existential one. And the more it's conceived of as a biological phenomenon, the more it really will come to resemble porn, albeit a type that happens to end not with a bang, but with a whisper.
But I think many in the community will agree with me that ASMR isn't just about finding what triggers the tingles. The meaning of the activities is (or at least was) important. There's a reason many people prefer videos that aren't made consciously as ASMR videos to ones designed specifically to trigger the feeling.
One of the biggest reasons for the backlash toward ASMRotica is that ASMR is often described as a sensation from childhood, and mixing it with sexuality seems to spoil the innocence of it. Of course, proponents of ASMRotica say what they're offering is not a debasement of ASMR, but a more wholesome form of porn: porn "with love." But can love be transmitted through a screen by a stranger to a stranger? Or, if it can, what happens if it does so in a way more stimulating than most people experience in "real life"?
I'm skeptical of the possibility of the first statement -- it would mean arguing that physical embodiment isn't important, which would be a strange thing for someone who's whacking it to argue. That worries me about the implications of the second; any positive emotion would necessarily be mediated by a screen, because why wouldn't people prefer a more stimulating, heightened pleasure than other humans could deliver?
As an ASMR enthusiast, I'm forced to ask myself whether there's also a drop-off in meaning from what the tingles represent in the real world to the sensation I get when I watch a video online. After all, for all the talk in the ASMR community about how the tingles are triggered by feelings of intimacy, attention, and interpersonal care, at the end of the day, I'm just sitting there alone on my computer.
This tension over ASMR is a reminder of one of the great ironies of the internet. The chills I and others get used to be rare and spontaneous. Now that we know they exist, they can be captured, analyzed, and repackaged, and while that creates community on the one hand, on the other, it inevitably harms our enjoyment of the "brain orgasms." Even a reply to what's considered the first online message posted about ASMR says, "It's as if now that I know other people experience it, it doesn't happen to me nearly as often. :-(."
The possibility of accessing ASMR at all times is a reminder of how far removed we are from its previous spontaneity. As we watch videos that are meant to give us the feeling of childhood, we have to remember that almost everyone in the ASMR community is no longer a child. And that's sad. But at least we experience that loss together.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.