When I was a small child–about four years old–my mother did some volunteer secretarial work for our local YMCA, which had an outdoor pool. I remember sitting once alone in a playroom while my mother was typing in the adjacent office. A girl of about eight walked in from the pool to use the bathroom, and on her way back out, she came over to where I was playing.
“Do you like butterflies?” she asked.
I said I did, and she took a small barrette out of her hair. It was plastic, shaped and painted as a butterfly.
“Here,” she said. “I’d like you to hold this while I swim. Now don’t lose it!”
As she walked away, a pleasurable, tingly feeling grew in my scalp at the crown of my head. It grew and swelled gently in waves of a long period, and it lasted for several minutes.
This feeling came upon me infrequently throughout my childhood. It often came about as the result of a positive interaction with someone I did not know particularly well. Sometimes it was another child; sometimes it was a grown-up.
When I neared the end of fifth grade, my friends and I bought little autograph books to have classmates and teachers sign. I read through my book several times that summer. One each occasion, that feeling in my scalp would return, sustained for over an hour or more as I read the kind things that people had written in my book. These were the first instances of this feeling coming over me in connection with people that I knew by name.
Again, this sensation would occur occasionally for decades, into adulthood. I welcomed it and associated it with positive experiences. I never had any inclination to figure it out or to try to find ways to induce it. I would simply notice it when it occurred.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I began meditating in earnest around the year 2006. This increased the frequency of this feeling in my scalp, which happened regularly–though not always–as I meditated. I now wanted to learn more about this sensation, whether it had a name, and what could explain it. When I looked online, I found a forum on which someone reported the same phenomenon. People responded with interesting guesses as to its nature, and one person even suggested it might be a mild epileptic seizure.
Further searches over the next few years yielded no meaningful answers, but when I learned Chakra meditation, I noticed that the feeling would often come when I drew my attention to the Crown Chakra. I discussed this with the woman who led a weekly meditation session I attended, and her eyes widened. “This is a very special thing,” she said. “It happens when you awaken to your true self.”
During yoga classes, my instructor would go around to all of the participants during the Shavasana portion of our sessions and, after rubbing her hands with a lavender-scented cream, gently place her hands on either side of our heads behind the ears. Often, I would already be experiencing the tingling, which was intensified when I felt her hands on my head and smelled the lavender.
On yet another occasion, I had received emails from several people in my condominium complex about a boorish man who would frequent the weight room. He held strong political views and expressed them in aggressive terms. Several people had argued with him, and they had expressed the hope that I might have a talk with him, since I served on our association’s board of trustees. Inevitably, I encountered him one Saturday morning, and I recognized him instantly by the tone and intensity that had been described to me. When I arrived, there were roughly a half dozen people working out, but they left one by one as he approached each, expounding his views for two or three minutes until the listener became offended or intimidated and left.
Ultimately, only he and I were left, and it must have been my turn. He came over to where I was working out and asked what I did for a living. When I told him I was one of the public-school teachers he had ranted about to someone else just moments earlier, he seemed not to betray any embarrassment, smiling and asking me where I taught. I offered nothing more than courteous verbal punctuation for the next half hour as he did the talking. I noticed his intensity lessen considerably, however, after the three-minute window that seemed to have bound the earlier conversations. He began to smile more, and while I could not relate to his views, his demeanor began to take on an affability that I would not have imagined possible when I had entered the room just a little while before.
Then, the tingling started. I found this unusual because I had not recognized the experience as particularly positive, though I am less prone than most people to being offended by the type of behavior he displayed.
Partly because I did not want to be the next person to walk out on this man, and partly because I could not do much exercise and still pay attention as he jabbered on, I outlasted him. At length, he said it was nice talking to me, and he left the workout room. I remained for another half hour to work out, those waves of sensation still washing over the crown of my head the entire time.
At that point, I still had no authoritative, empirical explanation for this recurring experience. I supposed it would have to remain a mystery. And indeed it did–until last April.
One Sunday, I opened the New York Times Magazine and saw an interesting acronym: ASMR. Jamie Lauren Keiles had written an article investigating the very thing I had been experiencing my whole life. Reading it, I learned that a woman named Jennifer Allen had similar experiences to my own, had similarly tried to find information online, and had found people who could anecdotally confirm that she was not alone. Allen wanted to give the phenomenon a more clinical name than the one people were currently using, so she called it Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Essentially, this means that the sensation results from stimulus of some kind, but the feeling is sensory, originates from within the body, and rises to a peak before declining. Allen soon began a more formalized, scientific discussion online, and this attracted the attention of researchers. Published studies have begun to furnish data and meaningful theories about ASMR, though a definitive scientific explanation is probably years away.
Meanwhile, the past decade has seen a proliferation of videos on YouTube that are intended to induce ASMR sensations. Also, given the pleasurable nature of the feeling and its tendency to come in waves, some people associate ASMR with sex, which finds its way into the content and spirit of some videos.
And while not everyone has ASMR sensations or can succeed in inducing them using any of the thousands of videos available online (Keiles herself could not), I am one who has had powerful experiences. Some research suggests associations between ASMR and positive social experiences among people. I cannot help but suspect this could bring meaningful benefits to society as research continues and awareness spreads.