Happy Talk

Investigating ASMR opens up a whole world of weird, but it’s supposed to feel euphoric

Through knitting I came to autonomous sensory meridian response, ASMR, a bodily reaction to a sound or sight that feels euphoric or orgasmic, writes Christine Manby

Sunday 05 July 2020 21:03 BST
Illustration by Tom Ford
Illustration by Tom Ford

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of knitting. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in wearing a wonky jumper that you’ve made with your own fair hands but just as seasoned travellers say it’s not the destination but the journey that matters, I’ve come to realise that it’s the process of knitting and not the end product that actually fills me with joy. One of the best things about knitting is the sound of my wooden needles brushing against each other with a quiet swish as I make a stitch. It is remarkably calming.

Daily life in the city brings with it a lot of noise that causes distress: the roar of traffic by road, train and air, the endless building work or the blare of loud music you wouldn’t choose to listen to blasting from a shop can all set our teeth on edge. There’s a section of the Victoria line where the screech of Tube on rails sounds like a cry coming straight from hell. Quieter sounds can be distressing too. Some poor souls – those who suffer from misophonia – can be reduced to sobbing by the sound of another person chewing gum. The noise of my clicking knitting needles would probably drive to distraction the frightening man who verbally abused me for typing too loudly on a train earlier this year, but equally there are people who find joy in small sounds because they trigger something in them called an ASMR, an “autonomous sensory meridian response”.

According to the people who experience them, an ASMR typically manifests itself as a pleasant sensation that flows from the top of your scalp down the back of your neck, cascading over your shoulders like a waterfall of tiny tingles. It’s sometimes described as “euphoric” or even “orgasmic”. It’s typically triggered by auditory stimuli, such as a softly whispering voice or rhythmic tapping, but it can have visual triggers too, such as watching someone brushing their hair. Or tactile triggers, like using one of those strange head massage devices that looks like an umbrella without its fabric cover, or rubbing the edges of your own ears. Even chewing and loudly crunching food, which is very a common trigger for misophonia, has ASMR fans who are willing to pay to hear it.

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