Pray to the Moon when She is round,
Luck with you will then abound,
What you seek for shall be found
On the sea or solid ground.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

ASMR: The Only Reason Smudging Works (for Me)

"ASMR" by illustrator Joanna Krótka. Website: DeviantArt:
"ASMR" by illustrator Joanna Krótka.

"Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data". -- Wikipedia

Since I was a child, I have always had this peculiar experience when someone approaches me from behind & speaks softly over my shoulder. This is the sort of thing that occurs on occasion in a traditional Western classroom setting where students are expected to work quietly & independently while a teacher &/or assistant moves about the room... looking over their pupils shoulders. I vividly recall watching someone who had come to help in our 3rd grade classroom move down the rows -- speaking to each child softly -- with great anticipation. I knew she was working her way towards me & it would soon be my turn. She would whisper something about my work, it didn't matter what & then...

As a child it did not occur to me that this might be unusual. I only wanted that feeling.

That feeling is what many people refer to as ASMR -- Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. I had no idea it had a name or that anyone else ever had this experience until I found mention of it in one of Jody Whiteley's videos. (See ASMR Stats. I have discussed Jody Whiteley in some detail in Sleeping with Jody.) Some people describe the sensation as "tingles." I find that the response varies from trigger to trigger. With a softly spoken phrase over the shoulder comes an almost numbing sensation that begins at the front of my skull & rolls back like a wave down my neck & spine. Other triggers evoke a more tingly, even ecstatic, full-body, slightly out of control sensation, one of which I will mention later.

I remember asking my mother about this once. She worked in psychiatry the majority of her life & I thought perhaps she knew something about this experience. She didn't. (This isn't surprising really since there seem to be very little clinical information about this phenomena & that which exists is very recent.) She also said she didn't recall having these experiences herself. I realize I never asked my dad, or my sister, or any other family member for that matter, but it might be worthwhile -- perhaps there is an inheritance to be found here.

Jody Whiteley's blog & videos sent me off on an exploratory mission across the ether. Here I found forums, articles, videos, music, etc. all describing or promoting that feeling I recalled so well (yet wasn't sure I had felt in a very long time). In the course of this ASMR hunt, I discovered the videos of Maria GW at GentleWhispering. Here, I made a fascinating connection. In the following video, you will see Maria (beginning at approx. 10:20),  using a 3D stereo microphone, blow/wave an oil burner around her audience:

Total trigger.

And doesn't it bear an incredible resemblance to "smudging"?

I thought about this at length. Smudging, particularly when someone waves a big, fat, smelly wad of White Sage around my face does not do much for me & honestly, I have always found the process somewhat counterintuitive. (That is, its efficacy as a cleanser or as a deterrent to spirit-beings is dubious to me, unless they are mosquitoes.) But, I go along with it because I am a social animal. On the other hand, I have had always had a fondness for the 'ghetto-fabulous' mode of full body smudging (even self-smudging) with charcoal or a joss stick & feather, simply because it gives me that feeling

I have begun to wonder if some of the "magic" of the smudging ritual & how it "works" to put us in "that space" for ritual, is because it works on a sensory response like ASMR, or perhaps it is ASMR. If that is so, is there a tendency for people with stronger ASMR affinity to be more attracted to certain types of ritual, particularly immersive ritual with soft sounds, smudging, tapping, etc.?

It would make a wonderful research project, particularly as a survey of the pagan & metaphysical communities.

It might also be an incredible basis upon which to formulate ceremony.

I have been meaning to write about this for nearly a year now, but Life, you know... However, I felt a renewed desire to make it happen because I recently made yet another connection. When I am immersed in specific music, especially if I am dancing, the ASMR response can become nearly overwhelming. My entire body will tingle, I become covered in goosebumps, waves of sensation roll across my scalp & occasionally I even experience irregular breathing... doesn't this bear an incredible resemblance to ecstasis?

For me, it seems to happen most often with electronica (although that may just be a matter of habits), particularly with dubstep drops -- & apparently I am not the only oneThere's a great deal more to say about all this, but for the sake of brevity, I will leave off here. But not without an offering. Below is the song which prompted this writing. If you are of the impatient sort, the first & biggest drop begins shortly after 2:20, but I suggest taking in the music in its entirety, especially if you know you have ASMR. The anticipation makes it that much sweeter. 

And if you have ASMR, or think you might & want to leave me a comment or send me a message about your experiences, please do! I would love to hear from you. 


Alison Leigh Lilly said...

Interesting! I didn't know this was a thing, but I know exactly the sensation you're referring to. I sometimes get it when attending a church service or lecture (any kind of thing where people are gathered in a large room together, sitting quietly, and I become aware of the breathing of those around me), as well as with some music. I also get it occasionally when my husband "whispers sweet nothings" in my ear. :) Sometimes I can even invoke the physical sensation merely by imagining/visualizing the situation. I never really thought to connect it with ritual.... Hmmm.... Very interesting indeed! :)

Moma Fauna said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences Alison! It IS completely fascinating & it begs the question: this just another name for something we already have a name or many names for? Where do we draw that neurological/spiritual line, or do we?

As for your "triggers" as it were, this sounds weird, but there are gobs of ASMR trigger videos for people who respond to "any kind of thing where people are gathered in a large room together, sitting quietly, and I become aware of the breathing of those around me." Lecture role-plays to no end! If that had been one of mine, I don't know how I would have made it through college. >.<

"Sometimes I can even invoke the physical sensation merely by imagining/visualizing the situation..." Me too, at least with the music. Sometimes I can just think about a certain drop & my hair stands on end, but it is never as strong as when I am listening with my ears. The "sweet nothings"/whisper/soft speaking over the shoulder I cannot recreate, however. *sigh*

The whole thing has had me wondering how many people are getting their "woo" on in circle, grove, church, synagogue & what is happening is this very same thing. The range of triggers is pretty vast, but much of it could be transferred in one way or another to religious & spiritual ceremony/settings. So many questions!

Dhiosdh said...

Hey Moma, the Buzzfeed article you link to discusses whether frisson (esp. music induced) and music induced ASMR are the same or not. Do you have a take? Do you experience both and are able to distinguish between them? I definitely experience the former and am surprised by the Buzzfeed author's claims that not everyone (or the majority) do, but am not aware of ever having had ASMR type effects from music which seems o describe a very specific sensation involving waves from the head down back and neck.

Moma Fauna said...

I prefer to call it all ASMR because it all feels the same, sorta-kinda-mostly to me as if the responses fall on a spectrum depending on the trigger. So, when I watch Maria (GentleWhispering) open and close books or unwrap greeting cards for a half an hour (it really does sound nuts, I know) I have this wavelike head, numbing (it's a superficial, not deep feeling, just along the skull, not inside my head) which is paired with a powerful sense of serenity & calm often centered behind the third eye. That is *absolutely* the social-bonding, nurturing reinforcement response they are talking about. The experience with music *also* includes waves along the head & down the spine & *can* be that numbing feeling *plus* tingles which spread across my skin down my extremities. If it is powerful enough, I will feel short of breath & intensely "euphoric" but most decidedly not "amped up" like the people in the article described. This is not a mosh pit feeling, which is kind of what "amped up" says to me. I am still "blissed out" as someone described ASMR, but it's more tingles & if I am dancing, much more intense overall.

So is it frisson vs. ASMR? I just don't think so, or not in my case (& probably many others). Maybe we are looking at similar responses on a spectrum, or people who really DO have ASMR triggers to *music* while others have frisson responses. I don't know, but I am not an expert -- no one is, ha! Either way though, I don't think you can completely separate them -- if the signals they say trigger "frisson" are linked to cues associated with mating, how is that not also "social bonding"?

As for your experiences, I think the videos are limited in many ways. Maria, no matter how nice her 3D microphone is, cannot truly emulate the sensation of someone speaking softly over my shoulder IRL. That's why those people in ASMR groups have "trigger parties" where they bring hairbrushes & feathers & long fingernails, etc. to share. Probably to do a test on yourself with justice, you'd have to shop a variety of videos & also try some of the triggers in the flesh world. The ASMR stats that Jody Whiteley collected (see the blog post link above) has an interesting list of triggers her listeners have shared with her. Maybe look at those & consider if you remember any from child hood. Her survey seemed to show that many people's ASMR diminishes with age.

Fabulous question -- thank you! And please feel feel free to share any new discoveries or old memories. I find this thing so amazing -- humans, such incredible critters we are!

Anonymous said...

I Who knew any of this? Great research. That GW video, in addition to giving me the tingles, also kind of creeped me out.

Moma Fauna said...

" addition to giving me the tingles, also kind of creeped me out," I have actually seen this comment almost verbatim on one of the GW videos. I find her endearing, but I am certain the response to her runs the gammut. I confess also that I haven't bothered with any of the other "ASMR artists" out there in YouTube land & individual mileage may vary. I like her accent, those great big anime eyes & her OCD which I dont have myself, but I think her obsessive structure & precision soothes me. That video is far from my favorite -- it mainly provided the epiphany -- I prefer her opening & unwrapping books & cards videos for myself. *tap* *tap* *crinkle* *crinkle* ha! So weird.
Thank you for the input! Let me know if you discover anything new and interesting! ;)

Katy Magee said...

You've given me lots to think about. I kept this post up on my computer all day in hopes that I'd be able to sit down and give it some critical thought - I love the questions you brought up, totally intriguing - but now that I finally have time, I'm whipped. So I'll just say thank you, and bookmark it, and hope I get time tomorrow. Thank you!

Moma Fauna said...

I look forward to your thoughts Katy! I expect you might have an anthropological angle to add to/enrich this & of course, I am completely into reading about everyone's experiences with ASMR (or lack thereof, although thus far it seems everyone commenting has had some form ASMR or "frisson" response). Take your time -- I am in no hurry & I will probably find myself writing more about this again soon. ;)

Anonymous said...

When I was reading your post I thought, "I have never had this ASMR thing." But when I listened to some music drops I was like "Oh THAT feeling!" I just assumed everyone got it. Some things that give me ASMR: eating wasabi, certain sub-bass sounds, bass-heavy drops, certain men's voices, Rimsky-Korsakov compositions (especially Scheherezade), scalp massages, bagpipes in massed band, having my neck touched in a certain way, musical instruments tuning, musical harmonies (especially in Greek Orthodox/Byzantine chant), singing with other people (e.g., hymns or patriotic songs, although I generally avoid church and "patriotic" gatherings).

On the other hand, the GentleWhisperings video literally made my skin crawl. I could only listen to a few seconds without screaming. If there is an opposite of ecstasy, that was it.

Although a lot of the triggers I mentioned involve music, I think for me at least, empathic connection is a major component in ASMR. It's not (just) the sound; the ASMR is much more intense if I am co-creating or co-experiencing music or when the music is created by multiple people. If there is an actual difference between frisson and ASMR, at least for me, I would speculate it is the empathy, plus a tranced-out, mellow-but-hyper-aware feeling that I don't get with just any chill. This was an interesting topic.

Moma Fauna said...

Thank you, thank you for your response! So many things come to mind:

"I just assumed everyone got it." I think this is relatively common among ASMR folks, either that or they are like me & thought they might be a little "weird." ;)

It is interesting how your triggers are what I would classify as mostly strong sensory experiences, like bagpipes, wasabi & certain men's voices, while I can have the same response, but generally the things that I respond to are very soft, like whispers, feathers, almost touching, etc. Yet we have that musical/sound response (albeit individualized) in common.

I had to chuckle at your reaction to GentleWhispering's video. It is not my favourite for certain (I used it to demonstrate the smudging parallel), but it is very characteristic of her work. However, I am also someone who loves to see a film in which *nothing happens,* long protracted scenes of stillness, uneventful lapses of time, the sort of things you might see in Fellini's films, or other "art" films. Even a really bad film, like Doris Wishman's "Nude on the Moon" is fabulous because *nothing* happens (like really nothing, huge swaths of time where people just sit around in their underpants w/antennae on their heads).

But, to get to the real meat of your comment -- "I think for me at least, empathic connection is a major component in ASMR." Me too. And I am suspecting this might be the link for most or all of us. I am pretty sure I like GW's videos because *I identify with her.* Somehow. Since everyone has been commenting, I have looked at my own triggers & thought about others, particularly Alison's comment above & it seems to me there is a sense of connection, empathy as you aptly described it.

This brings me to the question of ritual/ceremony in all arenas really. I already mentioned new age & pagan type ritual/ceremony components, but both you & Alison mentioned church & of course you made mention of a patriotic event. In all of these circumstances, there are invariably people experiencing empathy & connection to others, to the thematic presentation, to the ambiance. The sounds of people around them breathing, as Alison mentioned, singing together as you mentioned, making certain gestures or sounds as I mentioned. Is this what draws some of us to ceremony? Is this part of what we call the spiritual experience? Is this just neurons, or is this the touch of spirit(s) (or however you chooses to define it)?

The final detail which brought me to this thinking is that one of my biggest triggers -- most consistent, potent & notable -- is when I experience synchronicity &/or simpatico with another person or persons. If I become aware of a "woo-ey" moment or happening which connects me to a person or people, instant "tingles" (although this can happen with or without the blissed-out sensation, so then what is it?) This is interesting to me because it seems to draw a line directly to that subject of social bonding.

While I consider this more, I think I will go listen to Scheherezade...

Chas said...

First you have me watching the "tingles" videos, and now you toss out a polysyllabic name for that feeling.

With Gentle Whispering, I could see intellectually what she was trying to do, but it never fully did it for me. But there were some classroom teachers in my youth (chiefly female), who *could* do it -- the problem is, you don't hear the lesson when you're tranced out.

Moma Fauna said...

Ha! So true, the attention is not available in those moments -- this is why I mentioned that it really didn't matter the content of what was said in the classroom over my shoulder. Luckily my college professors never wandered through the auditoriums speaking softly and looking over shoulders -- if that had been the case my baccalaureate ship would have sunk in a blissful sea of tranquility. ;)

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