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Techly Explains

Techly Explains: The weird, soothing world of ASMR

Prepare yourself: If you’ve never heard of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), you’re in for a wild, confusing and downright weird ride.

When I was given this assignment, I had no idea what to expect. My eloquent editor Andrew gave me four letters – ASMR – and the vague description that it’s “kind of like a head orgasm”.

I set out with some trepidation to find out what was going on. Here’s the first YouTube video that I saw with the tag:

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t half-an-hour of a pretty brunette woman tapping and scratching different objects while she sensually whispers to her audience.

It felt kind of like I’d walked in on something that I wasn’t supposed to see, like my parents… well, you get the gist. It was unnerving and slightly distressing. And rather than being enlightened, the vague “ASMR” tag just made me more confused, especially when I saw that the video has over 6 million views.

If, however, you’re one of the millions of people who are lucky enough to experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, you may have found the above video extremely pleasurable.

You might also enjoy ASMR videos of a woman eating marshmallows, Margot Robbie making Vegemite toast, this woman pretending to eat your ear, or the most annoying video I’ve ever seen on the internet – someone drinking water for 12 minutes.

ASMR is tricky to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s defined as a feeling of overwhelming calm and pleasure, often accompanied by an intense tingling sensation that starts in a person’s head and spreads down their spine.

Talking to Vice, Gentle Whispering, an ASMR YouTuber with 1.4 million subscribers, described the feeling as like “bubbles in your head”.

“It’s like a little explosion, and then just little sparkles and little stars going down [your back].

“Depending on the strength of the trigger, it might just go into the top of the spine of the shoulders, but sometimes it goes down to your arms and legs, and other parts.”

As alluded to, the feeling is triggered by certain kinds of stimulation. What exactly triggers the sensation varies from person to person, with no one-size-fits-all solution.

While common stimuli include whispers, white noise, lip smacking and having a person’s unadorned attention, maybe someone eating raw honeycomb or pretending to be an angry boyfriend will trigger you.

All of the above activities triggered me, but not in the intended fashion. I guess that’s what’s so cool about ASMR – things that I detest with every fibre of my being can bring unbridled joy and relaxation to others.

And that’s the whole point. Despite the litany of young, attractive women creating ASMR videos, the practice is almost entirely non-sexual. A 2015 study into the practice found that 98% of people use ASMR for general relaxation and 82% use it to help them get to sleep, with only 5% using it for sexual gratification.

ASMR has a far more holistic purpose. Similar to meditation or mindfulness practice, it can have a positive effect on mood, alleviate pain symptoms, relieve depression and help you get a good night’s sleep.

It all sounds fantastically soothing, but things get a bit murkier when trying to figure out what the hell it actually is. The next step in evolution? A glitch in the matrix? The question is pondered constantly within ASMR-related internet communities.

Some think it’s a heightened state of mind, others believe it is similar to the ecstatic feeling animals get when they groom each other. Another theory popularised by the ASMR Facebook group relates the practice to Yoga and chanting.

They say it taps into the vagus nervous system, which in holistic circles is related to reducing stress and boosting mental health. ASMR researcher Karissa Ann Burgess believes that it is to do with the pineal gland, which is viewed as the ‘eye of insight’ in Hinduism and Buddhism.

My favourite theory, however, is that of Shaun Robertson, an ex-ASMR community member who told Vice that many people believe the condition is “the next stage of human consciousness”. Yeah, right.

While they’ve been unable to explain exactly what it is, scientists relate it to the sensation you experience while listening to your favourite song.

“Some people experience chills down the spine in response to certain pieces of music or specific emotional events; this is known as frisson. Other people have synesthesia, where one sensory experience automatically elicits another, such as a written number being accompanies by the perception of colours,” Stephen Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, told Healthline.

“ASMR is unique in a couple of ways. First, people can often control the intensity of their tingles to some degree. Also, the tingles occur quite reliably rather than being infrequent.”

Another study published this year suggests that like religion or meditation or Bigfoot, the phenomenon may be influenced by the individual’s belief in ASMR itself. Whatever the case, evidence has found that ASMR is real, and it has overwhelmingly positive effects – even if it’s induced by a placebo.

So now you know more about it, there’s only one way to find out if ASMR is for you. Dim your lights, tuck into bed with a warm cup of tea, put some earphones on, and settle in for a stay at the cozy Babblebrook inn.

You never know what bliss it might bring.

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Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

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