How I Came to Adore the Weird World of ASMR

A reluctant embrace of the sparkles in my head

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

I first became aware of the sparks in my scalp in 1984. Summer was fading and a nice lady was cutting my hair. She walked around to the front of my chair, leaned over, put her face in direct line with mine, and made a few quick snips with her scissors on each side of my head. Chills emanated in a starburst from my occipital bone and trickled down my neck, dissipating as they dropped. At the same time, electric fingertips crawled up my scalp to the crown of my head. I felt good. I felt happy and not because I had a nifty new do.

It wasn’t just haircuts that sparked my charge. My pediatrician was a family friend so she was my doctor from the age of four until I left for college. In my teens, team sports required you to get a physical. It felt unsettling to have a family friend cup my balls and ask me to cough in a room decorated with Winnie the Pooh and friends. The Piglet-adjacent ball cupping was uncomfortable but the most confusing moments of the visits actually occurred when she checked my ears and eyes. When Dr. Foster held the retinoscope in front of my eyes, electric effervescence flushed from the top of my head down to my temples, like happy goose pimples under my skin. I didn’t know what it was other than happy.

I experience tingles during haircuts, eye exams, doctor visits, and other moments in which I receive direct personal attention, reiki for example. I’m an agnostic, really an atheist with commitment issues, and am skeptical of anything harnessing universal energies or spiritual secrets but will gladly have someone reiki me or read my energy field just for the head sparkles. Feel free to activate my chakras or cleanse my energies because the one benefit I know I’ll receive is a tingle boost.

I never discussed it with anyone. I assumed we all felt gentle bursts of head tingles in moments such as these but only 40% of people experience ASMR and only 20% get the full fireworks like me. As I matured, I considered whether the sparks were sexual but they occurred regardless of the agent inducing them: hairstylist, doctor, my mom. When they manifest it is blissful and also awkward to talk about.

I was happily unaware this was a thing until I stumbled across an article on Salon about brain tingles. As I read the article, a mix of confusion and trepidation settled upon me. The author was writing about me and my head. I had a genuine ‘I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant moment.

I ran a search for ‘ASMR’ and a slew of articles popped up, ranging along a continuum from mostly-scientific to a little bit nuts. I read a dozen or so in one sitting. While there was some fleeting mention of neuroscience, most articles addressed the phenomenon in woo-woo terms or marveled at the people earning a buck by handing out tingles on Youtube. You know it’s a thing when it gets measured by impressions.

A quick ASMR query on Youtube brings up a lot of attractive people, most of them women, providing ‘braingasms’ in various styles. I flinched at new words and phrases such as ‘braingasm’ or ‘head orgasm.’ Of all the conditions in all the world this one was going to be mine? As I scrolled through the videos, I recognized a name from an article so I clicked on Sophie Michelle ASMR.

Sophie appeared after an endearing homemade opening title. She was pretty and perhaps in her early 20’s. She spoke directly into the camera in a hushed voice. The premise for this video was an examination. Her quiet speaking was disconcerting. Was this a surreptitious examination and, if so, who are we hiding from? Still, her voice was soothing. There was a prelude of simulated pre-exam paperwork in which Sophie posed a question and waited for my response before pretending to jot it down. I stared at the screen with my resting WTF-face thinking this can’t be right. Then the examination began.

I jolted as the scalp sparks burst and began crawling through my head. Then I relaxed. Waves of tingles saturated my neck and noggin. I sat through 30-minutes of different triggers: glass-tapping, hand motions, mic brushing, quiet assurances, ‘eye contact,’ and demonstrations of gadgets. By the end of the examination I was flummoxed and tingly, very tingly.

I called my wife at work to ask if she knew anything about ASMR. She told me I wasn’t making any sense. I messaged my sister back in the States asking if she has these experiences and included the word ‘URGENT’ in all caps with links to videos.

I watched several more of Sophie’s videos, with differing sparkly results. Youtube further suggested other tingle purveyors. I clicked on another video, again a young woman, but this ASMR technician was a bit more sensual. Sophie looked like a princess from general casting but the next video I watched had a tingle therapist from a sexy spy thriller. She went full Robert Rodriguez with green screen magic and included elaborate props and a rich backstory. I watched her thinking ‘what the hell is her production budget’ as charges rolled across my scalp.

ASMR videos offer a full array of tingle options. Do you want old school, straight up whispering into a mic while smiling at you? It’s there. Do you want a cranial exam? Right this way. Would you like to be a robot and have your visual sensors adjusted? Sit back and relax. Need a gypsy to provide you a protection spell? Buster, you are in luck!

You can also adjust the spice level of your ASMR experience. Some provide friendly, professional tingles and others offer a more provocative brain-tickle while they undress you with their eyes.

Funnily enough, the old pubescent warning of ‘If you keep playing with it, you’ll go blind’ is probably more appropriate to ASMR.

Here’s the deal with ASMR — it is not sexual but it is not not sexual. After a sparkle session, I feel relaxed. Imagine you could fit a run, a massage, and a meditation session into fifteen minutes, leaving you with a formidable afterglow. You feel ready to roll through the day or even roll in the hay.

Research indicates a person experiencing ASMR is relaxed but simultaneously has increased brain activity. Recent studies report people feel calmer with tangibly lower heart rates while multiple regions of the brain are stimulated, including those “associated with reward and emotional arousal.” It’s basically the physical manifestation of Netflix and chill.

For me, discovering the tingles was a less life-altering version of discovering what my penis could really do. The first few days after learning about ASMR, I watched hours of videos on a tingle bender. Funnily enough, the old pubescent warning of ‘If you keep playing with it, you’ll go blind’ is probably more appropriate to ASMR.

Of course, anything the internet can do, porn will try to improve. There exists a burgeoning world of ASMR porn stars willing to drop the tingles from your head down into your pants. Many have taken their cues from their Youtube cousins but added full-frontal nudity and a happy ending. From what I have seen, few understand ASMR but they are all trying to catch the tingle wave. I think it might be necessary to experience the tingles before you can effectively dole them out as there’s a difference between sparkling and spanking.

I’ve yet to touch on some of the other areas of ASMR, mostly because they don’t work on me. Watching someone meticulously repair a boot is nice but doesn’t turn my head into a Tesla coil. There’s also a strain of ASMR that finds mouth noises appealing. Oh. The. Humanity.

As someone who has cooked professionally, I enjoy seeing people eat as long as I never have to hear it. Once I begin hearing someone’s cavernous mouth and juicy mastication, it ruins the moment. Some people call this Misophonia but I call it my own private hell. This applies to wet speakers as well, the people who add extra mouthy sounds to their words.

Apparently, others in the ASMR world love a moist smacking of a soliloquy on stillness or a guy biting into a croissant. This is my no-fly zone. I endured my toothless grandpa gumming into a fried chicken breast out of love and don’t need reminders of moist mouthed trauma.

I openly discussed ASMR when I first discovered it but have tempered my sharing based on the reactions of the people around me. Some people look at me as if I’m about to share a trippy sex dream. Recently I’ve been more likely to tell you about a sex dream than share the fact I experience ASMR. My sex dreams are less embarrassing and slightly more believable.

Last week I had trouble focusing so I watched a video of a young woman who pretended I was an alien and measured my head. Two days ago I needed a pick-me-up so I tuned into a different woman who told me I was about to turn into a werewolf unless I listened closely to her. How do I explain with a straight face that a woman on Youtube talked me down from a lycanthropic transition while boosting my confidence?

ASMR is not a condition. It’s a gift I’ve used for meditation, hangovers, refocusing, and quick shots of energy. I enjoy the tingles. I’ve embraced them and the eccentric carnival that surrounds them and, as a bonus, I didn’t eat any villagers during the last full moon.

The mind and consciousness remain fascinating mysteries, perhaps puzzles we will never fully understand. You see numbers as colors and I get tingly when someone measures my face. How beauteous humankind is!

expat, ex-philosopher, ex-entrepreneur writing on society, relationships, & AI singularities. VICE, Salon, & misc humor sites @brianabbey

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