This Just In: Spine-tingling Not Just for Goths

This Just In: Spine-tingling Not Just for Goths

phrenologicalchartAutonomous Sensory Meridian Response or ASMR: sometimes it feels good to have a name for something, even if the name is an acronym and a euphemism. Thanks to this week’s This American Life podcast, “Tribes” I found out that this odd sensation I have had since childhood is shared by OTHER PEOPLE. Yes, I really did think it was me alone that would suddenly, while reading a piece of poetry or listening to certain music, experience a strange prickling sensation on the back of my skull that proceeded down my spine and petered out somewhere between my shoulder blades.

ASMR. According to the encyclopedic collective unconscious currently housed in the Tubes (wikipedia), ASMR is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Though after reading the wiki entry I was baffled by the term’s coiner comparing it to orgasm. An orgasm is a very muscular, whole-body sensation where everything tenses up with a release following it.

For me ASMR is subtle, does not involve muscles, only nerves and skin, and is an unlike an orgasm in that I can’t deliberately pursue and achieve it. I can listen to certain kinds of music more likely to trigger it, and I can read poetry in the hopes that I find a line that elicits it, but I can’t say with certainly what exactly it is I am responding to. It also has a more important component than the physical sensation that I would call liminal: it’s a state, a moment of transition or connection… and  it brings with it this strong sense of… rightness. That something sounds/feels right, as in, it has struck some kind of resonance inside me that I am uniquely tuned to hear.

When I was a kid, I was really curious about it. I felt it when I read passages in books, or in listening to classical music. (Which hearkens back to an earlier post I wrote about the central role music takes in my creative life). I used to tell adults about the feeling. One person told me it was called a frisson, but a frisson is a shudder or a thrill caused by emotional disturbance or anxiety or fear. A frisson is that creeped-out feeling you get when you hear a voice in the house when you know you are alone… it’s that attention/fear/back-of-the-neck hair-raising tingle otherwise known as the heebie jeebies or the willies. This may be a cousin of the electrified sprinkling that is ASMR, but my guess is that the willies are more a primal attention response that keeps us from being eaten by stealthy, nocturnal things.

I once saw my grandmother give a sudden shudder for no reason. She looked around in the air around her chair and then said, “A goose was walking over my grave.” Was this ASMR? I wish I had known what she was thinking about at that moment… or was she reading something? Listening to something? I can’t remember.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it is a kind of sense that doesn’t have a name. Remember when “umami” became the other taste that was all the rage? I hadn’t even heard of it until maybe ten years ago. It is not straightforward- there isn’t a single word to describe it, except itself. People try with “savory” or “hearty” or “delicious” but truthfully, it is its own thing. ASMR may be something like this: a sense like umami that is tied to sound. I confessed to a writer friend as soon as I heard about it, who also could not believe that it had a name. She also has experienced this feeling since childhood, and describes it as a sense of connectedness.

Maybe as I grew older I never mentioned this feeling it to anyone because it is so difficult to describe, and like most things tied to creativity, I feel guarded about it. Artists are superstitious… if you give away the power of an inspiration, if you talk about a story too soon, if you discuss what drives you to make something, you risk leaking its natal force. Also, you’d be surprised how many people want to belittle and dismiss the curious hunger that makes creative people happy.

Also, I am sure that if I casually mentioned that I experience a physical reaction to beauty, that I get tingles in my head when I read or hear a line of really good poetry, or that Wagner or Chopin’s Nocturnes give me electricity in my skull, I would sound like a total loon or even worse, a complete blowhard. I’ll tell you what though, I would bet a $5 coffee that most dubstep fans and musicians experience ASMR and even seek to create it. Dubstep, as well as a lot of related electronic music is all about the symphonic- heavy on the build-up and definitely, deliberately epically narrative in structure. They build to massy, booming drops. They buoy quietly up into soaring: it gives me the prelude to zings just thinking about it. Here, just listen to this one.

9 thoughts on “This Just In: Spine-tingling Not Just for Goths

  1. Thanks LJ for this delicious attempt to name the unnamable. I love that this sensation is recognizable enough to have an acronym.


  2. I saw the movie Aliens too young. For 2 yrs, every time I ran past the spare bedroom at night, I had one of those frission feelings. I KNOW there was a xenomorph in that room behind the boxes!


  3. Fascinating. For me, it was certain voices that generated that sweet sensation moving down the back of my head and created a sensation of “presence.”
    Now, can you please find the official term for that disconcerting feeling of “the perception of the too-familiar as alien”?


    1. Sarah! You are right… There has to be a word for that feeling that is like the opposite of déjà-vu… You’ve given me a mission for my Sunday! By the way, getting that ASMR response to certain voices, like you describe, is what that This American Life podcast is all about… you might groove on listening to it.


  4. Thanks again for pointing out that episode — definitely *resonated* with it, though it’s been a while since I had that feeling. Gotta slow down ….


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