In college, I was never able to listen to music while I did homework. I love music, and I draw a sense of peace and emotional regulation from it. So I was often frustrated when my favorite songs couldn’t do much to help me as I powered through 100 lines of Homer. But I would get too drawn away, too caught up in the lyrics and rhythm. 

Over the past few months, I’ve been exploring other methods to center my focus while I work on paperwork. The high volume of (often tedious) report writing and session logs makes sustained focus difficult. TV shows, which one of my supervisors suggested I put on in the background, are out—again, too distracting—and I already know that music doesn’t work much for me either. 

A few months ago, while looking around YouTube for videos of relaxing white noise like rain or ocean sounds, I found a few videos meant to elicit ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. It’s a feeling of tingles, similar to getting goosebumps, that can be caused by a variety of triggers, both visual and auditory. I had heard of ASMR before, but I hadn’t explored it much. It turns out it has a bit of a cult following in the YouTube world, with a number of content creators having channels devoted to the subject. 

Before I dive more into this, let’s get a few things out of the way: 1) there’s a lot of ASMR out there, and not all of it is good, 2) probably close to half of the ASMR out there has erotic undertones (which, I mean, if you’re into that, awesome), so Google wisely, and 3) we’re talking about hour-long videos of someone breathing or mumbling into a microphone. Yes, it’s objectively weird. But I think there’s something to it. 

I’ve started playing these videos in the background while I get work done, and I’ve been surprised by how well it works for me. Sometimes it’s a YouTuber whispering about something mundane, sometimes it’s a collection of sounds like tapping on glass, crinkling plastic, or brushing hair. I’ve noticed that I just enjoy the way the sounds make me feel, and that simultaneously my stress decreases and focus increases. I’ve noticed that I get tingles from many sounds (apparently not everyone gets them), including crinkling plastic, pencils scratching on paper, the whooshing sound of breath close to a microphone, and the sound of hair being cut. And, most importantly, I can listen to ASMR while I work on things without it being disruptive. Finally, some focus. 

I also noticed that I’ve loved ASMR for a long time, without knowing it as ASMR. A movie I watched a lot when I was young was Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s about a second-grader who gets really good at chess and goes to chess tournaments and stuff. Anyway. My favorite scene in the movie was one I never could explain. The kid and his dad go to some sort of chess club because Dad is trying to get Ben Kingsley to be the kid’s chess teacher. In a mostly quiet, echoey room, the kid sees Tony Shalhoub quietly studying a chess board. The kid is holding a bag of what appear to be gummy bears, and offers a few to Shalhoub in exchange for playing a game of chess. There’s barely any dialogue in the scene, and most of what you hear is the crinkling of the plastic bag, reverberating in the big empty room. I never knew why I liked this scene so much, just that I liked how it made me feel.

For me, I think sound has an inherently tactile aspect. Fans of Gerard Manley Hopkins will know that the significance of words can be both in what they mean and also in how they feel. But maybe that’s something different entirely. Regardless, it’s worth an idle thought how the senses may even work in concert to ground us in the present.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    You are SO right about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here’s an example that simply feels very good to be read aloud…

    Márgarét, áre you gríeving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?
    Leáves like the things of man, you
    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
    Ah! ás the heart grows older
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
    And yet you wíll weep and know why.
    Now no matter, child, the name:
    Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
    What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
    It ís the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.

    Reply
    • Alex Westenbroek

      Always love some Hopkins. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    I’m with you on being unable to listen to music or television while working. My only exposure to ASMR is those videos of Maya the dog eats carrots. You’ve made me want to check out some more legit ones! Thanks for the article, and I’m gonna have to start exploring some more sounds.

    Reply
  3. Geneva Langeland

    I don’t get tingles, per se, but I find many ASMR sounds soothing — which is odd, given my misophonia and other sound sensitivities. Mouth sounds can go jump in a lake, but tapping, scratching, and brushing are my jam.

    Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    Definitely like the concept of the senses being connected and working in concert. To a certain degree, they always have been (smell and taste are fairly obviously linked, for example), but the awareness of this lends an edge to our living, or perhaps prepares us to better, more fully, enjoy the sensation of living.

    Reply

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