Sensory overload: Brain orgasms
How Buffy Cram discovered the meaning behind a tickly feeling called a "brain orgasm."
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been susceptible to a strange and tickly feeling that washes over me when strangers speak to me a certain way, especially if they’re explaining something slowly and deliberately. If they’re pointing or whispering, it intensifies my reaction. This sensation is similar to how you might feel when someone runs their hands through your hair, only in my case it’s much stronger and I get it without any physical contact whatsoever.
One of my earliest memories is of getting the tickles while watching Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting on TV when I was a kindergartner. But I have also gotten the sensation while speaking with kind-hearted teachers and librarians, flight attendants and people behind perfume counters, particularly if they have an accent and a perfect manicure and tap their fingers a lot. When the feeling comes, it swarms over me in tickly waves that travel from the top of my head down my spine. I can easily close my eyes and slip into a trance when it happens. Except I don’t because I’m usually in the middle of a conversation or in an airport.
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I used to ask people if they had ever experienced this sensation, but my question typically elicited a blank stare. A few people would say they knew what I meant, kind of.
At this point, I would emphasize that it’s a pleasurable—but not sexual—sensation. Then they’d look at me like I was some sort of tickle pervert, which is why I stopped talking about it altogether. Even as recently as a few years ago, when my boyfriend asked why I was sneaking out of bed to watch the German shopping channel in the middle of the night, I dodged the truth. He knew I had chronic insomnia; I said it helped. It was easier—and less creepy—than explaining how all those women shush-shushing in a foreign language felt like fingers through my hair.
The feeling remained a mystery until a little over a year ago, when I heard American novelist Andrea Seigel on the This American Life radio show reporting that the “tingling” she sometimes feels in her head has a name: autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). She said that clinical studies are under way, and, although researchers don’t have an explanation for the phenomenon yet, people claim that it lulls them into a deep state of relaxation. (Later, I learned that it is sometimes also referred to, perhaps somewhat misleadingly, as a “brain orgasm” and that not all neurologists believe the phenomenon exists.)
Seigel went on to talk about her own experiences with the feeling: how she noticed it while watching Bob Ross when she was a kid (just like me!) and, later in life, became addicted to watching the home shopping network, which also triggered the sensation. It was at this point in the program that I quite literally fell to my knees.
All my life I had thought I was the only person who felt this way. Then Seigel got to the best part: There are people out there— “ASMRtists”—with YouTube channels dedicated to giving people the feeling. I raced to my computer to give it a try.
Watching my first few ASMR videos on YouTube was a strange experience. Some of the ASMRtists were really hamming it up. They cooed into the camera, wearing too much lip-gloss for my taste. It was all vaguely sexual and completely removed from the feeling I knew.
Beneath each video were thousands of comments from people who, like me, had harboured a secret feeling all their lives. It was a huge, collective coming-out party—one I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to be a part of. But I noticed something else among all those comments—something I couldn’t ignore: Many viewers (like, thousands of them) claimed that the videos were curing their insomnia. “I can’t even get through this video without falling asleep,” said one commenter. “Zzzzzz,” said another.
For weeks, I scoured different ASMR “providers” until I eventually came across a video that seemed as if it were designed specifically for me: a so-called “show and tell” video by a woman named Ilse on her channel TheWaterwhispers. In the video, she flips through a homemade book of pressed flowers and herbs, pointing and whispering and tapping her fingers as she tells stories, in a Dutch accent, about her life.
It was sweet and soothing, and every time she turned a page of that crinkly book, I experienced a full-blown tickle explosion on my scalp. That day I gave myself over completely to the feeling, and my life has not been the same since.
In the year since I first found out about ASMR, the community has swelled into the millions. Every day, more and more people claim that the videos are changing their lives, even curing them of insomnia, anxiety and depression. I count myself among them. These days, my bedside table is clear of herbal sleep aids. I no longer wake up at 4 a.m. to steep valerian tea or watch German TV. Instead, most nights I climb into bed with my laptop and a pair of headphones and put on one of my favourite ASMR videos. Most videos are between 20 and 40 minutes, and I cycle between about 15 favourites so I don’t build up a tolerance. Usually, the waves of tickles start right away and grow stronger until they reach a crescendo after 10 or 12 minutes and then slowly fade. At this point, my mind has emptied out and I’m able to drift off, worry-free, into a blissful sleep.
With hundreds of millions of views between them, the ASMRtists I have come to rely on (see my playlist below) truly are masters of the form. Researchers may still not have any explanation for what ASMR is or how it functions, but if, like me, you’ve been chasing this secret and wonderful feeling all your life (or if you have been enticed to discover it), that won’t matter. It will be more than enough to put on your headphones, hit “play” and feel the tickles wash over you.
BUFFY CRAM’S ASMR YOUTUBE PLAYLIST
TheWaterwhispers, GentleWhispering, WhispersRedASMR, ASMRGAINS, HeatherFeatherASMR, QueenOfSerene, ASMRmania, SoftAnnaPL, ASMR Vids, The ASMR Angel, accidentallygraceful, MassageASMR, MrHeadTingles ASMR, ASMRrequests, NekoASMR.