A FEW years ago, I sat down in my home office and clicked through to a
YouTube video. In it, a woman slowly folded towels on a table, while
talking in a gentle whisper. Almost immediately, a warm, fuzzy tingle
started around the nape of my neck, spreading across my shoulders and
back. Within a minute, I was in a state of utter relaxation. The
sensation lasted long after I stopped watching.
I have experienced this calming tingle since I was a child, when my
mother would stroke my back at bedtime. But I never mentioned it – it
just seemed weird.
Then a few years ago, I read an article about an internet subculture
devoted to the “brain tingles” elicited by videos of people folding
towels or The Joy of Painting
– a TV show in which the host Bob Ross would produce an oil painting
and quietly explain how he did it. Just reading the descriptions of
these videos was enough to set off the sensation.
Watching someone fold towels may seem tedious, but that clip
has had more than 1,900,000 views. Clearly, I’m not alone. That got me
wondering what was happening in my brain to elicit these feelings. Do
they serve a purpose? And how many other people share my ability to
easily find a state of blissful relaxation?
The phenomenon first came to people’s attention in 2007, in an online forum thread titled
“weird sensation feels good”. Many names were suggested, notably
“attention-induced head orgasm” – a misnomer because the feeling is not
as sudden or short-lived as an orgasm, and is distinct from sexual
The term that stuck was coined in 2010 by cybersecurity expert Jennifer Allen: “autonomous sensory meridian response”, or ASMR. She wanted something that represented the key elements of the sensation, but that sounded scientific, so people wouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it. It worked: those who experience the phenomenon are now a thriving online community. For instance, the ASMR subreddit has about 165,000 subscribers. The sensation has been popularised by pharmacologist Craig Richard of Shenandoah University in Virginia, who set up the website ASMR University.