Pop Life

ASMR: When Music Creates a "Brain Orgasm"

I was especially bad at science in school. I failed chemistry twice and third-time-charmed my way to finally passing with a C.

So now, of course, I enjoy anything with a scientific bent and listen to excellent podcasts, like Radiolab and This American Life, that present the scientific world in a way even a dodo-brain like me can understand.

Recently, I was listening to a piece by American Life contributor Andrea Seigel, where she related having a specific sensation to the sound of a whispering voice. She described it as "this tingling throughout my skull... it was like starbursts in my head, starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down to the nape, like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp."

As I listened, I learned there's a name for this feeling. It's called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR for short. It's a feeling I've personally experienced since youth and one recent weekend, while mowing the grass and listening to Justin Timberlake sing "Suit & Tie." That part where he's all like, "lemme show you a few things...lemme show you a few things..." It sets a trillion tiny, euphoric, graceful-as-Fred-Astaire dancing ants in motion. My scalp is their happy dance floor.

Seigel's piece focuses on her particular ASMR "trigger," the gentle sounds of a soft voice. But, my trigger has almost always been associated with singing voices. The better the voice, the stronger the feeling.

Turns out I'm not alone. There are people all over the world submitting to -- and even seeking out -- ASMR triggers. A good portion of them have this sublime, relaxing and mysterious sensation induced by music. Many are trading notes and sharing stories on social media and through work done by the research organization, asmr-research.org.

"ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is a response to stimuli -- sight, sound, etc. It's usually pleasurable and is characterized by a tingling sensation on the scalp, down the spine, and even in other areas of the body, such as the limbs. This is also accompanied by feelings of euphoria and relaxation," says Andrew MacMuiris, an outreach agent with the site's research team.

"People wanted to know what it was, where it came from, why we experienced it," he continues. "There was a lack of answers to be found. We like to think of Research & Support as a place where people can come and discuss ASMR and learn more about it. We have a forum for just this purpose."

The organization created a Facebook community three years ago and the group has grown to nearly 5,500 members from across the globe. MacMuiris lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and says his musical triggers are diverse and include Leonard Cohen, instrumental guitar, even the whistling of the family's gardener.

"For me, ASMR is almost always pleasurable, and it makes me want to sit or lay there and listen to whatever is triggering it for a long time, if not forever," he says. "I find that I listen much more intently to the song playing, paying particular attention to the bits that trigger the sensations."

The sensation is so pleasurable, people search for it and others do their best to help them. Seigel's piece was about whisper-induced triggers. She introduced listeners to "ASMRtists," people who post YouTube videos and create whisper podcasts to delight listeners. The feeling is so overpoweringly good it's even been described as a "brain orgasm."

"It starts in my brain -- I swear I can feel it in my right brain a lot of times," said Kelly Fuller, a South Carolinian who is part of the ASMR Facebook group. "It starts tingling and then radiates out, down my neck, down my arms, sometimes legs. I'll often get chill bumps as a result. It really is almost like an orgasm in the way it builds and tingles, but it's not sexual at all. I can see why people describe it as a brain orgasm, though."

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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.