Think back to a time when you experienced pleasure from the feeling of being touched (nonsexually). Maybe it was your back or your forehead or the nape of your neck. Or perhaps you were receiving a shave, a makeover, or face paint. Remember the soft, delicate feeling of the touch lightly trailing across your skin. Remember how your whole body relaxed: Your muscles released, your eyes closed, your head nodded, you gave in to the touch and experienced the sense-driven pleasure of your skin’s response to stimulation. Perhaps you felt tingly or shivered or got goose bumps.
Now add to that feeling the sound of someone whispering in your ear. Imagine the feeling of soft breath on your earlobe and inside your ear. Hear the sound of the person’s tongue, teeth, and lips forming the words of the whisper. Remember what that felt like. Did it cause your brain enormous waves of pleasure or, as thousands of people call it, a “braingasm”?
Technically speaking, neuroscientists wouldn’t exactly call such a sensory experience a braingasm. For example, Steven Novella, M.D., an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, says the term is “a bit misleading, since the regular kind of orgasm occurs in the brain with some peripheral manifestations.” But let’s just say we take the linguistic leap and consider feeling orgasmically good in your brain just from combining sounds, imagination, and the association of past experiences or the creation of new ones.
If you’ve encountered this pleasurable feeling or the idea appeals to you, you’re probably a good candidate for enjoying an autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, video. Created by Ilse in her soft Dutch-accented voice (she’s one of the most popular ASMR artists on the web), “13 Intense ASMR Triggers for Sleep & Brain Tingles” boasts nearly 100,000 views and is a great introduction to an experience that just might create waves of pleasure in your brain.
What Is ASMR?
Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” When it comes to finding a way to relax and even get some sleep, his words might be more appropriate now than ever, especially when it comes to ASMR videos, in which sounds provoke a soothing tingle that starts in your head and scalp and can move down your spine and into your extremities. The types of sounds that can evoke this feeling (triggers and responses are different for everyone) range from a soothing voice describing attending to you in a variety of ways (including brushing your hair and other personal activities) to softly reciting all Latin words that begin with the letter “a” to filling up and spritzing a bottle of water, crinkling a plastic bag, or painting your face to look like a tiger. Sound weird and fetishistic? It sometimes is. Yet the videos are not meant to be. They are nonsensual, intended to help viewers find a way to destress in a stressful world.
A very scientific label for the pleasant shivers, scalp tingles, and other feelings you experience in response to what you hear, ASMR is a robust video industry (a Google search reveals 1.85 million results, and there are more than 64,000 members in an ASMR sub-Reddit community) that can help you relax and fall asleep. According to ABC News “[for] those who say they experience the neurological phenomenon ASMR, sounds of crumpling paper, hushed voice tones, or finger-tapping can be as stimulating as an ‘orgasm for the brain.’” As Ilse offers, “ASMR is basically a term for a feeling a lot of people get when they listen to different kinds of sounds.” In fact, she credits her first ASMR experience to a childhood game that included whispering in each other’s ears, an action that made her feel “tingles.”
How ASMR Created a Global Community
With a dearth of pure, scientific research about its effectiveness, ASMR is more a personal experiential science; the web allowed it to grow into a shared communal experience. In response to an increase in ASMR Internet searches, plus the advent of ASMR online forums and communities, self-proclaimed ASMR artists began increasing the number of available videos in 2011. According to the research group ASMR-Research.org, ASMR sensations can be categorized into two types: Type A are triggered by thought patterns and include no external stimuli; Type B activate in response to external stimuli triggered by one or more of the senses. Similarly, ASMR viewers can be categorized into two groups: Those who experienced ASMR in childhood and those who seek the experience as adults.
Ilse explains, “The people who associate it with when they were a kid, they get triggered by something they remember…. For example, when their mom would read them a story or a grandma who would touch their hand or a little kid would whisper in their ear.” For this category of ASMR viewers, the quest is usually to search for triggers to experience that pleasure again. And that quest ranges wide: The ASMR community has developed an enormous catalog of videos so viewers can easily search for specific triggers. The scope of videos spans a few minutes to almost an hour, lending flexibility to how viewers can create their own personalized ASMR experience.
Depending on your personal and individual response, ASMR videos have the potential to do more than help you remember a childhood experience. Thousands of ASMR viewers, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder, report that the videos help them relax, plus reduce anxiety and depression. Writing on Oprah.com, Kate Sztabnik swears Ilse’s ASMR videos cured her insomnia during a particularly stressful period at work. Sztabnik explains, “I decided to search online for relaxation videos. This produced sterile waterfalls, classical music—and Ilse. Pretty, with no makeup and charmingly crooked teeth, Ilse breathed her channel’s name—”The Waaaterwhissspers Ilse”—and a tickly feeling spread through my scalp, a burst of prickly warmth followed by a sense of deep relaxation. She leaned in to the camera, pretending to examine my pores and give me a facial. Whoa, sister, I thought. But then something even stranger happened. My arm went slack; I was snoring within minutes.”
Whether a “braingasm” is a true, scientific phenomenon or just jargon for feeling good, ASMR videos are really about engaging in a sensory experience designed to activate pleasurable and relaxing brain responses. Admittedly, the idea can seem strange, disturbing, or funny, but when you get past any initial resistance, you just might find yourself thinking back to what made you feel tingly as a kid or what sensory stimulation you enjoy as an adult and then, on a night you can’t sleep, thinking maybe, just maybe, an ASMR video is exactly what you need to relax and drift off.