Whenever I mention ASMR in conversation, it’s a pretty safe bet I will need to follow up with an explanation. ASMR is only a very recently recognized phenomenon and although it is starting to break into more mainstream coverage (such as TIME magazine), it has not yet reached a point of understanding where I can simply mention it without having to refer people to a YouTube video primer. This is something I have had to do to pretty much everyone else in my cybercultures class with the exception of one particularly clued in netizen. My usual responses tend to be comments on whether or not they, too, get triggered, often accompanied with a certain detectable trace of bewilderment at the whole cultures existence. But on a few other occasions I have gotten the response, “oh, so is it sort of like X?” Where ‘X’ in this case is another neurological, sensory condition such as synaesthesia or misophonia. This got me thinking about exactly how ASMR might compare or relate to other known conditions and neurosensory phenomena.
Neurodiversity is a term that acknowledges every different possible way that the human brain can vary (Novella 2012). We don’t all think the same, behave the same, or have the same tastes because our brains aren’t clones or copies of each other. It’s partly what makes human beings as complex as they are and it means that for anyone who gets triggered, ASMR itself will never be the whole picture of what’s going on. It’s this hidden quality that makes ASMR research so challenging. As lecturer of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield, Tom Stafford, puts it:
“It might well be a real thing, but it’s inherently difficult to research. The inner experience is the point of a lot of psychological investigation, but when you’ve got something like this that you can’t see or feel and it doesn’t happen for everyone, it falls into a blind spot. It’s like synaesthesia — for years it was a myth, then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it.” (Micro Mart 2016).
Synaesthesia is a phenomenon in which a stimulus, or inducer, produces additional experiences internally for which no physical sensory inputs exist – for example people may experience different colours for the names of days of the week (van Leeuwen, Singer, and Nikolić 2015). It’s pretty clear why people who are aware of the condition think of synaesthesia when they hear about ASMR – both being concerned with strange sensory experiences triggered by seemingly unrelated stimuli.
But there may be more in common between these phenomena than triggers and sensations. Synaesthesia does show some signs of being related to ASMR, with anecdotal and some small amount of research suggesting that those who experience ASMR may be more likely to also experience synaesthesia. In research conducted on ASMR triggers and uses, thirty-five participants reported experiencing various subtypes of synaesthesia, with 29 of these cases assessed to be genuine after a follow up interview (Barratt and Davis 2015). This is a noteworthy coincidence given that synesthesia is thought to exist in the general population at around 1–2% (Simner et al., cited in van Leeuwen, Singer, and Nikolić 2015).
The same Barratt and Davis (2015) study found similar trends with ASMR and misophonia – a form of decreased sound tolerance that is characterized by significant distress, anger, or discomfort triggered by selective sounds such as eating, chomping of teeth, and breathing (Wu, Lewin, Murphy, and Storch 2014). It is suggested that further research should be undertaken on the relationship between ASMR and misophonia to determine how they might be related, with some suggestion that they may even exist on opposite ends of a spectrum (Barratt and Davis 2015).
Naturally, this observation also hasn’t escaped the online communities surrounding ASMR and misophonia, with many bloggers who experience both phenomena calling ASMR “the opposite of misophonia” (lifewithmisophonia 2014). Another blogger goes on the say that “as pleasurable as ASMR is, misophonia is equally unpleasant. Most of the triggers are things that cause ASMR in some people. Strangely, I have several triggers that can bring about either one. It’s like a suprise!” (overagain 2012).
The overlap of triggers for those who experience ASMR and misophonia has been anecdotally described in a number of other instances, as people attempt to globally unravel the mysteries of these two seemingly connected conditions. A blogger by the name of 4SSucks (2013) suggests that, in their own experiences, the distinguishing factor between whether or not an audio trigger results in ASMR or misophonia may depend on the people involved in producing the sound.
“To summarize and give an example, i can watch a 45 minute video on YouTube of just someone whispering into a microphone and get so extremely relaxed and also the amazing body chills yet if you took that same video and used my sisters voice i would become so enraged i can easily see myself punching a hole through my computer screen and ripping it to pieces, only god knows what i would do if i had to sit through the entire 45 minutes of it [sic].” – 4SSucks (2013)
These are interesting lines of inquiry, although it is worth bearing in mind that although the internet allows us to spot patterns and give them new names and identities, such phenomena are not always real – “sometimes a real pattern emerges from the internet, sometimes illusory or misidentified patterns” (Novella 2012). But that isn’t what I am here to understand. The purposes of my research are more concerned with how ASMR is experienced, understood, and used by those who identify as users, and how the internet has facilitated this. Whether or not it’s really real doesn’t really matter right now. What matters is that enough people on the internet believe in it enough to build it into a culture and an identity.