Tuesday, May 14, 2013


One of the blogs I regularly read is Vaughn Bell's excellent Mind Hacks, a blog about psychology, neuroscience and brain-things. Today there was a post about an unusual phenomenon known as ASMR (Auto Sensory Meridian Response)*. As I read the first paragraph it dawned on me, with some shock, that it was talking about something that I experience on a fairly regular basis (though not as regularly as I'd like). ASMR is the name given to a wonderful tingling sensation that sort of spreads out across your scalp like a wave, rippling out from the crown of your head and then zipping down your spine. It gives you goosepimples and makes all the hair on your body stand on end.

From reading this article and listening to this NPR piece. I've learned that this sensation is triggered by all sorts of different things in different people. For me it's watching, or listening, to someone concentrating intently and quietly on something. Someone methodically sorting things or looking for something small and hard to spot. It can also be triggered by listening to someone carefully explaining how something works, or guiding you through how to do a complex task.

I've had this feeling for as long as I can remember. When I was a little kid I used to conspicuously and deliberately sit near my mum and scratch my head like an itchy dog (though with my hands, obviously, I can't get my feet that high) in the hope that she'd notice and think I had nits (headlice). Having my hair checked for nits always set it off. I can also remember sitting on the carpet in primary (elementary) school, watching, transfixed, as Ms Robertson, my Year 4 (3rd grade) teacher, went through the register for the term, checking the attendance record of her whole class.

It has always been something fairly fleeting for me, it's rare for anyone to keep doing something that triggers it for very long, or at least, not without it being weird or inappropriate for me to sit and stare. The longest time I can remember being in this state was when I was eight or nine, sitting in the doorway between the kitchen and the back room of my childhood home, watching my uncle (a carpenter) carefully and methodically measuring our strangely-shaped kitchen for a set of new cupboards.

Unlike the woman in the NPR piece, I rarely seek this feeling out -- if nothing else, I don't think I get it as strongly as some people. That said, during a particularly stressful period of my third year of university I used to load up videos of guitar company reps explaining how complex effects pedals or amplifiers worked, for the sole purpose of triggering this feeling. Those lost their efficacy after a while and I didn't think to seek any others out (I came across those by accident when shopping online for a new compressor/sustainer pedal). As with some of the other people mentioned in the NPR piece, my ASMR (it's a silly name, but it's better than inarticulate nothing, which is what I had before) is occasionally inconvenient**, but never unwanted.

As part of the NPR piece the woman mentions that there's a whole subculture that caters to this feeling, and there's a shitload of ASMR porn (for want of a better word) on youtube. I just clicked nervously on one of these videos and found that yes, they do work for me, so I'm now going to switch off my head until Kristen gets home from work.

*The name doesn't really mean anything, it's just a vaguely sciencey-sounding acronym used by people on the internet.
**A few months back I was looking for a guide to opening the casing on my laptop (it was shorting and giving me shocks) and lost about an hour in a glazed over state watching videos of people explaining how to pop out the tabs around the battery casing.