About a year ago, my brother and I were talking on the phone and he asked me if I had heard a particular episode of This American Life. It was this one called Act Two: A Tribe Called Rest. Still to this day, I have no idea why he asked me about this (I need to remember to ask him). I hadn’t listened to it yet at that point, but as he told me about the topic of “Act Two” of the podcast, I was thinking “No way! This has a name? There are other people?”
So what was the podcast about? ASMR.
I had never heard of ASMR, but it stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and the link takes you to the website mentioned in podcast. That’s a fancy name, but what does it mean? Sometimes it’s called a “braingasm” which sounds sexual, but it is not a sexual feeling at all. It is a pleasurable feeling, but it is like your brain and neck feel tingly and you feel utterly relaxed and calm. In the podcast the speaker describes it like “starbursts in my head that sparkle down to my nape; like this warm, glittering water rushing under my skull.” For me, that’s a pretty spot-on description.
I’m not sure who actually came up with the term ASMR and it is important to note that it is not a term really used by the medical or psychological community, but it is a good explanation of what it is. As soon as I knew that the sensation I had spontaneously and serendipitously experienced since early elementary age had a name, I asked family and some friends if they had it too. Like the woman in the podcast I had never, ever mentioned it to anyone–not because I was embarrassed, but because I had the sense that not many people felt this way since no one had ever talked about it and I didn’t know how to describe it or when/how it happened. That’s why you’ll often see ASMR referred to as “that unnamed feeling” or “the good feeling that no one can explain.” Anyway, I don’t know if my brother had a sixth sense or something and that’s why he told me about this podcast, but I told him that I had felt that way since I was a kid. Turns out, he had too. We quizzed our parents and other sister and they all thought we were lunatics. I asked my husband and sons, and NOPE they had no idea what I was talking about. I asked a few people I work with and they didn’t know what I was talking about either, except…we all have this person in IT we like to talk to because she is so patient and has a relaxing tone of voice. Everyone at work jokes about how calm we feel after talking to this person on the phone, so I used that experience to give some sort of insight into a little bit of what ASMR feels like.
I first noticed this weird tingly feeling when I was in elementary school and was playing board games. I remember loving to play Monopoly just because of (in retrospect) ASMR. I distinctly remember asking friends if we could play board games with no talking. The sounds of the dice rolling, cards or fake money being shuffled, and the sound of the pawn being moved around the board all gave me the weird, relaxed, tingly feeling. I also got it at the library back in the day when books were stamped instead of scanned. The flipping of the pages, removing and stamping of the cards, etc. were triggers too. So far, in real life, my brother is the only other person I know with ASMR. He has one other person besides me that he knows who experiences it. This “condition” (feeling, state, whatever) just become known in the past few years, so not much research has been done to date, but there is report of a study using fMRI to study it at Dartmouth. I hope it is studied because I would like to know the neurological, psychological, genetic, endocrinological, etc. underpinnings of it. Also, if we knew more about ASMR, it could possibly be used to help people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, etc. Seriously, it is a feeling that everyone should be able to experience.
The This American Life podcast mentions triggers and YouTube videos and my brother and I have talked about those as well. The YouTube videos feel rather “pornish” to us, even though they are nothing like porn and there is nothing sexual about it. I think it is more the thought of going to intentionally trigger an ASMR that seems creepy, rather than how they just spontaneously happen. Also, the common triggers on YouTube seem to be whispering, role play (again, not sexual, but a little weird in my opinion), and scratching or tapping noises. Those things don’t trigger mine. Most of my ASMR triggers are auditory such as the previously mentioned sounds of a library or board games, as well as things like cutting fabric. Also, visual triggers include things like seeing someone complete a detailed task with precision can occasionally trigger the sensation–like an artist or craftman. I remember when I was in college that a friend of mine told me that when she got stressed, that watching Bob Ross on PBS relaxed her. Bob Ross is a huge ASMR trigger for many, including me. Between the way he talks and the noises of his brushes on canvas, he’s like the poster child for ASMR.
For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that a genetic variation in the brain makes some people inherently less anxious, and more able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences. This lucky genetic mutation produces higher levels of anandamide — the so-called bliss molecule and our own natural marijuana — in our brains.
Only about 20% of adult Americans have this genetic mutation. I have never had genetic testing, but I suspect that I might be one of them because I am a recovered worrier and really and truly rarely, if ever, worry significantly about things. I also am an eternal optimist. Apparently this could be because my brain is making its own neural marijuana. Who knew? At any rate, it’s a pretty interesting read.
Did I really win the ASMR and anandamide genetic lottery? I don’t know. I just know that both things ring true for me. I also know that I have some odd genetic mutations. I registered several years ago to be a bone marrow donor. I was one of a handful of possible matches for someone, so they did some additional testing of my DNA sample. After that, I got a letter from “Be the Match” stating that I had some very rare and unusual HLA markers that meant I would likely never be a match for anyone.
Who knows what’s in my complicated genetic make-up?