There are a series of videos on YouTube about, and an entire community built around, the notion that some people experience a sensation, from time to time, where their scalp tingles in response to certain external, often non-physical, stimuli.
I’ve had it happen. Our co-writer, Mark Thoma, has had it happen. But apparently, it doesn’t happen to everyone. And science is unsure whether it’s a real phenomenon or not.
The thing I’m talking about, at least in my case, is a positive, happy feeling you get, associated with what can only be described as a tingling on your scalp, that sometimes spreads (almost spasms) to your arms and legs. It’s usually brought about, at least for me, by someone doing something genuinely nice for me.
Of all things, I get the reaction when people email me those cute (okay, schmaltzy) online video Christmas cards with the cute Disney-esque animals frolicking in the snow next to the warm cabin with the roaring fire. But apparently, some people get the reaction from whispering. Thus there are videos on YouTube, quite popular ones at that, with people whispering in order to provoke the sensation.
For example, this woman Masha (aka Maria) got nearly 5 million views on one of her videos (and I have to admit, oddly enough, the video I link to worked for me – and I’m gay, so I’m hard-pressed to call this a sexual response):
I also get the sensation practically every time I get my hair washed at this one particular hair cutter where the woman washing my hair is an expert at scalp and neck massage, and gives you a massage while she’s washing your head.
And actually, she mentions in the video that when she was a child she and her friends used to play games, like lightly running their hands over the other’s arms to get them to tingle. And it reminded me of when we used to do the “cracking an egg over your head” game, where you take your hands and pantomime cracking an egg over someone, then gently touch their hair as if the egg yolk is slowly falling down. If it works, and you get a bit of a frisson, for me at least it’s a similar sensation (though some say the frisson is actually something different).
And while I say this isn’t sexual, if you watch the YouTube video I link to in this story, it certainly comes across as quite sensual, even though it’s g-rated on its face.
I think my favorite spot-on comment on the video is this one:
BBCTrending recently did a short broadcast about this “thing.” It doesn’t even really have a name. Some call them “braingasms.” Others have created a quasi-scientific name for the experience, a name Mark isn’t very fond of: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.
Here’s the quite short BBC piece, followed by a bit of discussion from both Mark and me.
I asked Mark Thoma, our resident MD about this, and he had a few brief thoughts, but wanted me to make clear that he’s just speculating, as there’s no hard data on this, only Web videos and the like from people who say they experience this.
Here’s a bit from Mark:
I’ve had the experience. Apparently not everyone does. Think of chalk squeaking on a blackboard – it makes some people scream and shudder, others aren’t bothered. And what causes them varies from person to person. Sometimes sounds, sometimes touch or just physical closeness, maybe sights. Intense concentration may help. Hyperventilating can do something similar – causes dizziness, light headedness.
I have never heard them referred to as ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). I did a quick search and there is no (not one) medical research paper on this. There is one quasi-discussion of it, mostly an opinion piece. I suspect that the ASMR name was given to it by non-scientists. Scientists often avoid the word “meridian,” as it shrieks of quackery. A quick Google search shows that there is a site called ASMR-research.org (or something like that), but it has been down for several days.
My gut feeling is that this may be distantly related to some things that can happen in epilepsy. [Note from John: A doctor in the BBC video says the same.] Some epileptics will have a seizure if lights are flashed in their faces at three cycles per second. So an external source or sensory input can trigger a seizure in some. Other epileptics will have a specific aura (like a premonition of an oncoming seizure). These epileptics will smell a vile odor (when there really is no odor present) just before they seize. So their sensory brain structures are perceiving something as real when it doesn’t even exist. Some similar things occur with migraines. But, to me, it seems to resemble something epilepsy-like.
To do research to study it, find its causes, and determine how people perceive the sensations, you would need volunteers to undergo functional MRIs (fMRI) to see what “lights up” in the brain when they get stimulated. That would cost a lot of money, and I’m not sure that anyone would be interested in funding it.
That’s an interesting observation from Mark about epilepsy. I was going to say “of course it’s real.” And it is real, in that it does happen. But the question is WHAT we’re defining as having happened during the experience. It’s very strange. And definitely reproducible in that I put her video back on, and the scalp tingling comes back.
Here’s another video by someone else. She basically tries to trigger the response by having you listen to different ordinary sounds, such as chewing gum, pouring water into a glass, or scratching a book binding (oddly, the book binding part actually worked for me):
How about you? How many of you know exactly what I’m talking about, and how many of you are saying, WTF? I’m chatting with an Italian friend online, and was telling him about this article, and he had no idea what I was talking about. So I had him watch the video, and he told me, “my face is tingling”!
Feel free to weigh-in in the comments, and share whether you’ve ever had this experience.