If you’ve experienced it, you know what I’m talking about, although you might not have known the name for it. It’s when a sound triggers a physiological response from your body—perhaps a slight tingling that starts at the nape of your neck. It feels gooooood. But what is it?
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When I first heard about the term for this sensation, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (or ASMR), I immediately thought of that feeling when someone else brushes my hair, the “chills” that ripple over your scalp. But some people—those who “have” ASMR—claim those same tingly feelings can be triggered without any touch at all, just by watching someone else get their hair brushed, or hearing someone shuffle through the pages of a book.
Because the triggers are so easily captured and conveyed on video, ASMR has engendered an entire internet subculture. At least three million YouTube videos are tagged “ASMR” and there is a subreddit devoted to it, where one might discover the pleasures of “cat buttering” (don’t worry no cats were harmed). There are YouTube channels that take ASMR requests, with well-manicured hands brushing over various suggested surfaces like homemade pop rocks, softly narrated in what can only be described as “ASMR voice”—barely a whisper, captured with two powerful microphones to capture every click of the tongue and lips.
It’s not technically fetish, but I will say that some of the videos get close. That’s probably why ASMR is also described as a “braingasm,” although neurologists are divided on whether or not this is technically a real neurological phenomenon.
All of this is fascinating to artist Julie Weitz, who uses the idea of ASMR triggers and the bizarre DIY internet culture that’s grown around them as the basis of video art. Her installation Touch Museum is up through February 22 at Young Projects Gallery in LA and I spent an hour there last week.
Visiting Touch Museum requires wandering a completely dark space, with monitors and projections arranged, almost funhouse-like, in various rooms. Music by Deru (which you can hear in the above trailer) fills the space, as you watch hands perform various tasks with a variety of props. It’s not as “YouTube star” vibe as the videos you’ll find online; these are quite beautiful and well-produced.
The entire experience was completely enjoyable, and I really liked sitting in the dark letting the images and sound wash over me. But as I reached the last room, I was bummed that the videos didn’t seem to work on me—I felt like I was trying really hard to talk myself into getting the chills. I even stood for a long time in front of a particular video that showed a hand running over hair (I think it was a fake hand and a wig), wondering if I could trigger ASMR by memory, since I clearly got the right tingles when real hands touched my hair.
Finally, in the last room, a tiny space lined with egg crate foam and pillows, I sat to watch this video.
And it happened.
Maybe my neurons were primed by the visual association—a brain dripping with blacklight paint—but there was something about the way the narrator (which is Weitz) swallowed between sentences. I found myself salivating and then, suddenly, the chills. We’re not talking “braingasm.” But it was enough of a pleasurable feeling to send those familiar shivers down my spine.
Don’t worry. If this doesn’t do it for you, there are millions more videos that might. Enjoy.