By Muhammad Ali Khalidi
In April 2013 I diagnosed myself with a weird neuropsychological condition after listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life. As usual, the episode contained a number of stories loosely organized around a theme, and this time the theme was “Tribes.” In one story that week, the novelist Andrea Seigel described a “tribe” that she recently discovered that she belonged to, a group of people with a condition that has come to be called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).
As Seigel poignantly described how she became addicted to watching endless shopping programs on TV in the hope of experiencing a certain tingling sensation, it suddenly struck me that I must have a very similar condition. Ever since childhood, I’ve known that there are certain situations that will send me into a relaxed state in which I feel pleasant sensations running up and down my scalp, back, parts of my arms, and beyond. But I’d never heard this experience described until I listened to that podcast. I later learned that Seigel wasn’t the first to detail ASMR; descriptions of the condition had been around for a few years online. But since that podcast, the condition has gained significantly more publicity and it’s been extensively discussed on various internet discussion groups and blogs, even making it to the New York Times in July 2014 and the BBC in December 2014.
For those who haven’t heard of it, ASMR (the name is just a pseudo-scientific catchall term) is a condition that appears to affect a small but significant portion of the population. In almost all cases, it involves “tingles”: mildly pleasurable physical sensations in the head and other parts of the body accompanied by a sense of calm and relaxation. As for what triggers it, there are variations among people, but there are also striking commonalities. It often involves the voice of another person speaking softly or whispering in your ear, confiding in you and requiring little response, perhaps while touching your scalp. They could be telling a story, explaining something, displaying objects, or demonstrating some expert technique. In some people, it’s also brought on by gentle tapping or clicking sounds made, for instance, by touching the fingernails on hard objects or surfaces. Hence the penchant for watching shopping channels. A salesperson turning an object over in her hand and talking gently about it in hushed tones is a prime trigger for many ASMR types.
For me, the connection to shopping is rather more tenuous. I’m more likely to be triggered by a doctor intoning quietly about my health, while writing slowly and laboriously in a notebook, preferably making soft scratching sounds with an ink pen, deliberately turning pages, and pausing occasionally to ask me questions to which only perfunctory answers are required. For some reason, the deep voice and painstaking manner of an older person work particularly well in my case, though thanks to YouTube I’ve come to appreciate younger “ASMR-tists,” people who specialize in making videos designed precisely to induce the sensation in others.
An informal survey of ASMR videos on YouTube confirms this constellation of triggers. There are plenty of role-playing videos that mimic a visit to the barber, optometrist, dermatologist, or doctor performing a cranial nerve exam. There are many others with people showing off their lipstick collection, carefully describing their assortment of pens, or meticulously folding origami. They almost always involve whispering or soft speaking, and more often than not a sense that the speaker is confiding in you or sharing an intimate moment. The makers of the videos sometimes invest in sophisticated binaural audio equipment to create the illusion that the speaker is whispering alternately into each ear or talking softly around your head. Headphones are a must.
One natural response to all this is that there’s something creepily sexual about it. To the uninitiated, it may sound just a little like pornography. But you have to take my word and that of fellow members of the “ASMR community” that it’s less about arousal than relaxation or “zoning out”, even though there are some distant relations to porn, for instance in the level of intimacy in some of the trigger videos, many of which seem to be made by attractive young women. But a quick glance at the comment threads below such videos—some have millions of views—show that, a few anomalies aside, most viewers use them to relax or get a good night’s sleep.
All this is well and good, you might say, but what’s the philosophical interest in a condition like this?
First, there’s the question of the reality of the condition. To date, there’s been very little if any scientific research on it and all we have to corroborate it is a collective sense of “me too!” among some people (accompanied by a corresponding sense of incredulity among others). We can describe it phenomenologically using terms like “tingling”, “zoning out”, “calming”, “relaxing”, and by situating it in various parts of the body. But can we be sure that we’re experiencing the same thing, and that there’s an objective “there” there? While skepticism is in order when it comes to any psychological phenomenon, I think that the commonalities in the descriptive terms used by diverse sets of people of all ages, male and female, gay and straight, from New Zealand to Mexico, powerfully suggests a peculiar unity of experience.
And it’s not just the effects but the causes that seem to endow the phenomenon with a certain incontrovertibility. Though the triggers are not identical in everyone, there is a definite family resemblance that is undeniable and reminiscent of other robust psychological phenomena. (Think of the symptoms or diagnostic signs characteristic of schizophrenia or autism). There are just too many uncanny similarities in the clusters of causes and effects for it to be made up or imaginary. Indeed, I would argue that it is just this type of nexus of cause and effect that characterizes natural kinds.
Moreover, people are fairly certain whether they have it or not, with very few unsure or in between. Even some ASMR enthusiasts on the web, a few of whom make their own triggering videos, are quite adamant that they don’t have ASMR and don’t get the “tingles.” (Why they take the trouble to make the videos is another question.) And I don’t know if I’m at all typical, but it only took me only a couple of minutes to recognize myself when listening to that podcast by Andrea Seigel.
Daniel Dennett has called for adopting what he calls the method of “heterophenomenology” in investigating consciousness. In doing so, he intends to counter the idea that consciousness is inherently subjective and cannot be studied scientifically. ASMR constitutes a nice potential testing ground for this method. Nowadays, we all tend to assume that the reality of such conditions lies ultimately in the discovery of a single type of “neural correlate,” and run immediately to our brain scanners in search of the regions that “light up”. But whether or not it corresponds to a uniform neural state or process in all subjects, ASMR can also be investigated the old-fashioned way, by asking subjects what it feels like, what brings it on, how long it lasts, what feelings it is correlated with, and so on.
Another philosophical (as well as scientific) question that arises in connection with ASMR concerns the possible function of such a condition. One obvious possibility, which has also recently been the object of some speculation on the internet, has to do with grooming among our hominid ancestors. Grooming is an important ingredient in the social lives of our closest primate relatives and many researchers consider it to have been an important feature of our own evolutionary history. Some (like Robin Dunbar) have even theorized that language evolved to effect social bonding when grooming ceased to be practicable as the size of our social groups increased. One can see why getting pleasure from being sat down and talked to in an intimate way while your scalp is being gently handled could be evolutionarily advantageous.
It’s important not to commit the adaptationist fallacy and assume that every feature of our mental life is there for a purpose. It may just be one of those accidents of our neuropsychological makeup with no real purpose or function, rather than the vestige of a previous phase in human evolution. Still, even if it’s simply a neurological freebie or a byproduct of something else, it would be interesting to know whether it’s correlated with any other psychological or physiological phenomena: insomnia, a flair for languages, susceptibility to hypnosis, early onset Alzheimer’s, or none of the above.
But maybe the most perplexing question in connection with ASMR is the perennial, why now? Suppose that this is a real condition with definite causes and specific effects, and let us say that it has always affected a significant minority of human beings. Why doesn’t it seem to have been mentioned, much less described, by one of the thousands of writers through the ages who have written up their own foibles (see e.g. Augustine, Montaigne) or commented on other people’s (see e.g. Austen, Freud)? Why has it just exploded onto the scene in the past few years, giving rise in such a short period of time to YouTube channels with hundreds of thousand of subscribers?
A few answers suggest themselves. One is that the phenomenon hasn’t been interesting or significant enough to be dwelt upon by serious writers and researchers. Another is that it is sufficiently rare that it would not have come to light were it not for the miracle of the internet, which has the potential to connect small numbers of far-flung people with common idiosyncratic interests and quirky foibles. After all, there are online discussion groups for spouses of those addicted to obscure videogames and blogs for all sorts of outlandish conspiracy theories.
It’s also possible that the condition has not been lurking there on the sidelines of human experience, waiting to be widely acknowledged, but that it’s a peculiarly modern neuropsychological manifestation. I don’t think that’s very likely, but there are other psychological conditions that, if not wholly new, have taken on a thoroughly contemporary guise. Ian Hacking has written about psychiatric disorders like multiple personality (MPD), which erupt onto the scene at a particular historical moment, sometimes only to fade away or recede years or decades later. While it has not died out, MPD has ebbed in recent years, and has been renamed “dissociative identity disorder” in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.
If I hadn’t had a close experience with another such condition, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), in which sufferers are obsessed with some perceived defect in their physical appearance, I wouldn’t have believed that it existed. There’s nothing like reading a clinical description of a mental malady and instantly recognizing the detailed symptoms of a friend or relative to instill confidence in the reality of a psychiatric disorder. Still, it’s likely that BDD didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist in its current form, prior to the rise of mass advertising and the obsession with body image (and it’s now been subsumed into a broader category in the latest edition of the DSM). Though I don’t think it’s very likely, it’s possible ASMR is just a recent phenomenon, induced by recent cultural or other developments.
Since finding out about it, I’ve become mildly fascinated by ASMR, searching out triggering videos on YouTube and reading what little has been written about it, though not to the point (I reassure myself) of obsession. I’ve occasionally asked myself why I didn’t think of it as a real condition before I listened to that fateful podcast. It’s true that I had mentioned it to my wife once or twice, mainly expecting that she would know what I was talking about (didn’t everyone get the tingles?). But when she expressed mild surprise, I didn’t pursue it any further.
So why was it apparently not documented since its first mention on an internet discussion group in 2008? I tend to think that we humans are shallow observers of our own mental life. Despite the fact that we pride ourselves on our own self-awareness as a species, it’s quite possible that there are large expanses of our psychological makeup that we just haven’t bothered to describe and explain. After all, it’s hard to observe one’s own mind from the inside and we often don’t pause long enough to record the odd blips and patterns that are going on under our very skulls.
Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at York University in Toronto. He specializes in general issues in the philosophy of science (especially, natural kinds and reductionism) and philosophy of cognitive science (especially, innateness, concepts, and domain specificity). His book, Natural Categories and Human Kinds, came out in paperback with Cambridge University Press in 2015, and he has recently been working on topics in the philosophy of social science (especially, social ontology).
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