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Off the beat: That tingly feeling

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MAY 20, 2013

I’m sitting in a restaurant in Lisbon waiting for lunch. I’m weary from wandering the city with a friend, and a Fado band is playing on the television by the door. In the corner of the screen, I notice a woman translating every lyric into sign language. Her hands move quickly and assuredly. Her focus is sublime. Every move is scrupulous. Her attention to detail is simultaneously calming and arresting. I am in a trance, and it’s a familiar feeling.

It’s a feeling I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it’s the cashier at the counter of a store who provokes it, or it is a professor’s relaxing drawl in the middle. Often it comes from people I would normally feel little to no connection to; more often than not, it brings the end to a night that would otherwise be plagued by insomnia.

The feeling has come to be informally known as autonomous sensory meridian response. I’ve never told my friends about it, mostly because the sensation is deeply personal, and I’m not entirely sure why it happens or how widespread it is. I do know that others feel it too, so much so that there are entire online communities dedicated to conjuring the response, commonly and unofficially referred to as ASMR by most who have discovered it. Many swear by it as a cure to sleeping problems; for others, it sometimes even serves as entertainment.

For years, it has been a daily routine, the kind that comes after brushing your teeth and settling in for bed. Every night my laptop lies beside me, the companion to my dreams as strangers lure me to sleep with aural minutiae that would likely annoy almost anyone else. The gentle crinkle of a plastic bag or the quiet tapping of a keyboard go from mundane to magical. A careful whisper leads the symphony of solace, my neck stroked by a brush of relaxation as every drop of sound ripples with slow, dissipating waves of soothing pleasure. Any remaining stress miraculously melts away, and I am instantly happy.

Many videos revolve around role-plays, recreating everyday interactions in which intense personal attention is simulated — a doctor’s appointment or a haircut, for example. Others are more concerned purely with sound, and one channel even has a fragmented story line with fictional characters running through some of the videos. For me and many others, it is a vital and normal part of everyday life. Yet few are willing to discuss it, because in truth, it is a little strange, taken out of context.

Like many things, the Internet has changed that, at least partially due to the attractiveness of anonymity involved when discussing such a personal subject. The phenomenon has recently received mainstream media attention from outlets like National Public Radio’s “This American Life” — coincidentally a program that many in fact consider a trigger for the tingly feeling — and the production of videos to elicit ASMR has become an art form in audio engineering. Sounds are curated through binaural microphones that imitate the ear’s natural cadences, and the videos — some of which have hundreds of thousands to millions of views — are meticulously edited for maximum effect.

From the beginning, the community slowly evolved from random online forums about “that tingly feeling” to the large following it has accrued since. Today,  ASMR boasts its own subreddit as well as several dedicated websites and a myriad of YouTube channels. Even Rule 34 now applies to ASMR, for better or for worse — although it must be noted that for most who enjoy it, ASMR is not even remotely sexually arousing. Despite videos containing content that may appear sensual or provocative to the casual onlooker — such as close whispering and slow, articulated speech patterns — ASMR isn’t the weird cult recent media reports seem to portray it as.

ASMR has become a common point of reference for many, a trait that brings people together in its unique and seemingly haphazard spread. Currently, little to no scientific research has been done on the subject, and ASMR has even had difficulties maintaining a place on Wikipedia. Its occurrence in individuals appears to be completely indiscriminate — but throughout all races, ages and upbringings, it is a uniting force that drove the community to form itself in the first place.

For me, the feeling will always be mine alone. After a long day, I look forward to lying in bed listening to simple sounds and forgetting about the world to escape into another. It’s the calming study break in the library or the pleasant surprise in an otherwise forgettable interaction.  It’s what gives me a reason to appreciate the slightest details in every snap, crackle and pop. It’s mine and only mine. But maybe it’s yours, too.

Contact Damian Ortellado at [email protected].

MAY 24, 2013