Growing up there was always one thing I hated about Christmas: opening presents. Don’t get me wrong, I loved flinging away gilded wrapping paper to expose my wished for gifts of art sets, Matchbox cars, and SEGA games, but actually getting the toys out of the box left me cringing. The sounds of Styrofoam and cardboard elicited the worst physical reaction, even worse than the sound of nails on a chalkboard, causing painful tingling down my spine. If there are sounds that can cause negative tingling sensations is it possible that there are sounds that can cause euphoric, even orgasmic, tingling?
Enter ASMR or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR is defined as an exhilarating experience, categorized by static-like or tingling sensations produced in the scalp and head that can move around the body precipitating compete relaxation. Colloquially known as “brain orgasms,” ASMR has become the new trendy way to achieve relaxation and combat insomnia with dozens of YouTubers devoting whole channels to creating the tingles in their viewers.
One such YouTube star is ASMRDarling (real name Taylor) whose channel has amassed over 464,000 subscribers. Her videos routinely feature gentle whispering, rhythmic tapping, and intriguing role play designed to stimulate and decompress her viewers. Her most popular video, “ASMR 10 Triggers to Help You Sleep” has been viewed over 8.8 million times and I decided to join these millions in order to experience the illusive brain orgasm. Everybody loves orgasms right?
Watching the Video
As advertised, the video features 10 distinct audio sounds that her viewers find to be the most heavenly and relaxation inducing. I will chronicle experiences with each of the sounds in chronological order.
Makeup Brushes– This first audible experience, for me, was the most effective. The sounds of the brush against the microphone created a slight tingling sensation in my nose and cheeks. The experience was heightened after closing my eyes and letting the sounds immerse my perceptions. I can only compare the sounds made to sounds of the womb, deep low pitched thrashing that a fetus senses while enclosed in utero. By the end of this exercise I was at ease, in a state of total relaxation.
Pins in a Cup– The sounds produced in this exercise came from both tapping the outside of the container as well as dropping the pins in the cup. Because the sounds were not as long as the first segment, I found the sounds of this portion to be less effective. The rhythmic tapping reminded me of the sounds of water droplets, prolonging my state of relaxation from the first experience, but did not produce the same tingling sensations. The thuds of the pins reminded me of childhood toys, like LEGOs being shaken in a plastic tub, which filled me with a sensation of joy and nostalgia, but sadly did not produce any inklings of a brain orgasm. Perhaps if the sound bites were longer they would be more effective?
Ceramic Vase– After missing the tingling sensations produced by the makeup brushed, the echoes of Taylor blowing on the vase brought them back in full force. In addition to reinstating the tingling in my nose and cheeks, the vibrations infiltrated my upper arms and spine. Her blows on the vase opening mimicked the pure sounds of isolated wind, extending my relaxation to almost a meditative state. If there was a video of just this blowing for ten minutes I am sure I would have reached a full blown brain orgasm.
Antique Book– I have always loved the sounds of cracking open an old book. Hearing the breakage of the glue in the spine as well as the crispness of the pages are some of the most satisfying sounds in my memory. The action of Taylor stroking the pages with her fingernails is the most effective, again causing tingling in my nose and face. One of my favorite times from childhood was reading before bedtime (Roald Dahl especially) and this exercise brought me back to those nights.
Masking Tape– Taylor professed that the sound of tape is her favorite childhood memory, thus her incorporation of the sounds into the video. Perhaps my childhood memories of Christmas counteracted any meditative qualities in the tape noises as this segment held no relaxing qualities. Of course the tape produced an interesting clamor, just not one that promoted ASMR in my mind.
Water– This is the most conventional sound in producing an ASMR response. Rain machines have been around for decades in order to engender sleep in restless individuals. The sounds of the water brought forth images of rain, rivers, and waves again causing relaxation. No tingles here though, maybe because I have used rain machines in the past?
Matches– I was surprised at how calming the sound of scratching matches can be as the action is so similar to nails scratching a chalkboard. The sounds reminded me of walking on snow and ice (something I loved during my childhood growing up in Upstate New York) and again were very soothing. When Taylor then put the lit match in the water from the previous segment, it created a very interesting sound, but it was too short lived to create any orgasmic effects.
Hair Cutting– Now this exercise is unlike any of the other experiences. Taylor breaks the fourth wall with a pair of scissors in order to create the illusion that she is cutting your hair. I for one love the sensation of getting my hair done but it was hard for me to visualize that she was actually touching me. However, she gave me the same individualized attention that one gets when visiting a salon or receiving customer care so I can see the appeal of this section. I can now remember feeling tingling sensations from previous visits to Supercuts and will look out for them in the future.
Coins in Bowl– I’ll be honest, this is the segment that left me a little confused. My dog, however, perked her ears when hearing this portion through my headphones so maybe I am just missing something. The sound of the coins reminded me of collecting coins for my piggybank as a child so maybe the fact that I grew up without money is an impediment to getting the tingles from this exercise. No tingles here.
Tapping– The last sounds produced for the video was a good way to end this experiment. The tapping on the wooden box reminded me of horse trotting while the scratching, again, reminded me of walking on ice. Listening to the scratching repeatedly incited a deep relaxation with some minor tingling in my face and shoulders. I can postulate that if this segment were several minutes that I would be on my way to achieving the good old ‘gasm.
Why did it Work?
As mentioned above, most of the sounds incorporated into the video either replicated noises observed in nature or experienced in childhood. We have used nature to relax for centuries: you will seldom find a person who would turn down a free trip to Hawaii to relax on the beach or someone who wouldn’t try a rain machine to combat insomnia. What I find more interesting are the allusions to childhood memories incorporated into ASMR videos. Taylor throughout the video, and her dozens of other ASMR videos, only speaks in a whisper or a soft tone of voice, similar to how parents talk to their children or get their babies to calm down after temper tantrums. When I was hearing the tones produced in the videos images of Christmas, childhood toys, reading books at bedtime, playing in the snow, and saving up money flooded my consciousness bringing with them positive memories of childhood. Even in her haircutting video Taylor takes the position of a care giver, giving you a haircut similar to how my mother would attempt to give me a trim at the kitchen table.
So is ASMR a Freudian construct rooted in largely debunked psychoanalytic pseudoscience? I would not go that far. I would categorize ASMR as a tool designed to bring back memories of childhood and memories of where we have experienced total relaxation, which happens to be in places of serene nature for the most of us. Additionally, childhood seldom brings the daily anxieties and fears that come with adulthood and thus reliving childhood can bring us back to a time where we were at peace. Hearing is a powerful sense and when all other senses are eliminated, sounds by themselves can bring forth positive emotions stored deep in our subconscious.
Will it Work for Me?
Based on my conclusions your own experiences will dictate whether or not you can achieve a brain orgasm. If you have never felt any sense of deep relaxation then the odds of being able to achieve it by watching YouTube videos is probably pretty slim. Also, if you go into a video thinking that it will never work then you are setting yourself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would recommend determining what makes you the most relaxed and the happiest and finding a video that simulates those events through sound.
What Does the Research Say?
ASMR has not undergone the scrutiny of rigorous psychological testing, as it is a rather newly discovered phenomenon, but is considered to be genuine due to a hefty amount of anecdotal evidence. Blogger Steven Novella sums this up best writing:
“Is it real? In this case, I don’t think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is. There are a number of people who seem to have independently (that is always the key, but it is a recent enough phenomenon that this appears to be true) experienced and described the same syndrome with some fairly specific details. In this way it’s similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.”
Though perhaps not as intense as a real orgasm, ASMR creates a pleasant relaxing sensation; that is if you are open to it. If you allow yourself to become completely immersed in the sounds of whispering, tapping, and nature you can unlock a euphoric tingling feeling that can ease anxiety, insomnia and everyday uneasiness. With all the content available on YouTube why not take the chance to experience this for yourself. If anything you can get a laugh out of watching people whispering into a microphone.