Does this video make your head tingle?

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):

Quick snippet of Masha's 16 minute whisper-video meant to provoke the scalp-tingle response.

Quick snippet of Masha’s 16 minute whisper-video meant to provoke the scalp-tingle 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:

by-default-2014-02-24-at-7.31.35-PM

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):

fingernails-scratching-book-jacketxxx

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.


(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Wesinoregon
  • Steve_CNJ

    My best guess is this is what’s left in our species of the grooming instinct that you see more clearly in apes and monkeys. The sensation that you’re noticing is that of the “groomee”.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Sometimes comments get hung up by Disqus or stuck in the moderation queue.

    Anyway — glad you liked it. There was a time a few years ago when I first stumbled across that song & album, and at night my wife and I would just lay there in bed before falling asleep, playing that one track over and over.

    My wife plays violin sometimes. After listening obsessively to Shades for weeks, I was halfway to asking her if she’d consider taking up the cello as well.

  • Finn

    The goggles! They do nothing!

  • richard

    not sure what happened to my original comment but oh my.. I listened to ‘Shades of Blue’ and it must have happened a dozen times. I’m particularly susceptible to string instruments, particularly certain violins. Even thinking about music that has caused it will sometimes trigger it again.

  • richard

    oh my. less than a minute in to ‘Shades of Blue” and its totally happened. and twice more while i type!

  • Dick_Woodcock

    I asked my daughter earlier if she experiences this, and she does too. I was getting the tingly feeling while we were talking about it. Weird.

  • judybrowni

    My brother has epilepsy, too!

    And I also experience those pleasant frissons, on a regular basis, now.

    I wonder what the connection might be?

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    For me, it’s almost always purely instrumental pieces, often in the genre variously labeled as New Age, World, Electronica, and/or Ambient.

    This one, “Shades of Blue” by Hans Christian, from his album “Surrender” has been one of the absolute best at bringing it on:

    https://play.spotify.com/track/5qBznwDiH8Ih8osDGm0vJN

    Works best with headphones, but they aren’t required.

  • judybrowni

    In my experience, it’s not the same as what is usually termed “cold chills” — much more pleasant, for one.

    It’s also not attached to fear or dread.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Perhaps we should link to the cyber-trolling post ;-)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    I know, isn’t that funny. And she is quite good at whatever this really is.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Exactly, it’s someone doing something nice for me, and me thinking “oh my god that was so sweet” – then I get it. Or when some blonde Russian woman whispers on YouTube, apparently :)

  • 2karmanot

    ‘Stairway To Heaven” does that to me. Sometimes Leonard Cohen songs like ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Bird on a Wire.’

  • quax

    Always get it when a hair clipper goes by close to my ears. Definitely not sexual. I am really not that much into hair clippers.

  • AdamK

    I think it’s the pilomotor reflex that most people experience as “goose bumps” or a “hair-raising” experience–just that some people get it more strongly or more directly located on the scalp, and with a more distinct whole-body emotional association.

  • Dick_Woodcock

    I totally get this feeling. I’ve always referred to it as my people-purr.
    It’s not sexual in any way for me, it only happens when someone is doing something nice for me.
    2 of my brothers have epilepsy, so I think there may be something to that connection.

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who experiences this. The few times I’ve mentioned it to other people, they would just think I’m crazy.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    I get that watching the movie Blade Runner. I have no idea why, but I have never ever been able to watch it from beginning to end. I always fall asleep. I enjoy the movie, and it isn’t just that it can be slow at times. I’ve watched plenty of slow, long, boring movies. For some reason, when I watch Blade Runner I just simply cannot stay awake. Even if I watch it in the middle of the day when I’m fully alert. I don’t always fall asleep at the same spot in the movie, but I always do.

  • Island In The Sky

    She is great. The 3d surround mic is incredible.

  • cole3244

    it makes me think i might need a hearing aid or the volume is too low, i hope its the latter.

  • 2karmanot

    Watching Masha made me nauseous. Does that count?

  • docsterx

    I wasn’t trying to “pathologize” it. I was trying to relate it to something that we know something about. with the eplipsy analogy, some epileptics have things that will trigger a seizure., like flashing lights Other epileptics can have the same stimulus applied and not seize. Something like some people experience ASMR and others don’t.

  • ScottL

    I’ve gotten this tingling sensation all my life, starting from when my mother washed my hair, and when my father took me to the barber shop for a haircut. It still happens to me whenever a barber or hair stylist takes my head in her hands to turn it a certain way or hold it in a certain position. When they use an electric trimmer to shave my neck, I practically go into full body tremors.

    Okay, I don’t want to get too gross, but I used to get the tingle and shuddering during a particularly satisfying pee. Like when I really really needed to go, and it was such a sense of relief. That hasn’t happened to me in years.

    Sounds: The sound of a barber using a leather strap to sharpen a straight razor. Certain songs from my “coming of age” adolescent years.

    Art: Simple, realistic paintings (like the Vermeer posted above), and elaborate sculptures such as Michelangelo’s or Bernini’s work.

    Architecture: Huge old cathedrals, particularly Gothic cathedrals.

    “Sublime” is a word I associate with AMSR.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    For me, the static in the recording completely ruins it for me. The white noise cuts through my concentration like a knife, and I can’t even focus enough to hear everything they’re saying.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I’ve seen Masha’s video before and none of what she does works for me.

    Then I realized I already knew how to trigger it: Music.

    Certain songs, if I listen to them closely, can bring it on. I never knew to call it AMSR, but came up with my own name for it, given where — for me — it came from. I called it “spine music,” for the location. I’d feel a frisson begin at the back of my head, then spread down into my spine and outward.

    I never quite know in advance which songs will work. They don’t always work on first listen either. Over time, probably due to familiarity, they slowly lose effectiveness, but I can usually get them to work again if I just put on headphones, tune out all distractions, and really listen to the piece.

    But yes, it is an absolutely glorious sensation, a veritable endorphin cascade.

  • TonyT

    Thank you for this. I’ve experienced this while getting Cranial_Sacral massages. Just the person holding my head with two hands brought on the tingles and the spasms. To me it was much better than sex and I don’t mean in a dirty way. I felt comfort, safety, back in the womb just overall well-being.

  • judybrowni

    Okay, I’m outing myself here, but as my semi-retirement career from journalism, I work as a psychic and medium . (Long story, but my psychic experiences date from when I was 4 years old.)

    I experience those pleasurable frissons often during readings: but specifically, when I connect someone to a loved one who has passed over.

    And the frissons can continue down my neck, back and my legs.

    Not sexual, but definitely sensual.

    And occasionally, my clients experience similar frissons at the same time.

    Oddly enough, my brother is epileptic, although I’m not sure what the connection may be.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    You could, but then we’d have to call the FBI ;-)

  • Anthony Vásquez

    I just remember being in study hall, sitting in front of this girl smacking her gum in the quiet room, and thinking “Oh My God, this is the greatest thing ever!!!” Other times, I’ve seen people loudly chewing gum and I give them a quick look, but then they get sheepish and apologize, when I was enjoying it.

    But the ASMR community has gone from simple whispering videos to extensive role-playing content with written scripts, binaural head mics, costumes, props, special effects, etc.

    Some of my fave content providers:
    Gentle Whispering (aka Maria)
    ASMRrequests
    Heather Feather
    Asmr Vids
    accidentallygraceful
    Ephemeral Rift
    Olivia’s Kissper ASMR
    RelaxingASMR
    thatASMRchick
    TheOneLilium
    TheWaterhispers

    I could keep going… :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    That’s funny, the second video includes gum chewing, which I didn’t get – funny you mention it.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    That’s a neat example.

  • ArkhamNative

    Yes, I noticed this long before stumbling upon the ASMR community on YouTube. My theories-of-the-moment: 1. It’s a soothing reminder of warm, personal attention, like of a parent telling a child a bedtime story. 2. Maybe it’s akin to synesthesia: the sounds or visuals allow one to easily imagine the physical touches, such as fingers moving over paper. Either way, the sensory input can be a sort of gateway to meditative relaxation.

    I’m certain it’s not sexual. Too many types of things cause this effect, and it happens to many in youth before they become aware of sex or sexuality. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t conflate it with sexual gratification, though.

    It’s a bit sad to see the doctors pathologize it, though not a complete surprise in today’s pharma-driven health care industry. As in, if your only tool is a hammer, you see everything as nails.

  • flyinroom

    I get that (and I always have) from the sound of the horses hooves on the ground in the old time Westerns….
    That is only one example among many
    I don’t think it is such a rare phenomenon.

  • dula

    When it happens to me, I have an overwhelming desire to sleep.

  • Anthony Vásquez

    I discovered ASMR a few years back. All I remember is that as a kid, I
    really enjoyed the sounds of someone slowly flipping pages in a book, or
    the sound of loud gum chewing. Weird, I know. I just remember when
    someone would loudly be smacking their gum in a quiet setting, and a
    friend of mine would get annoyed, but I would get the so-called
    “tingles” and had no freakin’ clue what it was. Until I discovered ASMR
    videos on Youtube. Now my entire subscription feed is filled with
    ASMRtists, male and female. I don’t get any sexual feelings at all (which is what some hypothesize is the purpose). It’s solely for relaxation and sleep. My triggers range from binaural whispering, to tapping on objects, etc.

  • Drew2u

    My scalp always tingles in response to an adrenaline surge, whether it be from stress (most common), or otherwise. It’s gotten to a point where I can almost control it (the adrenaline surge, not the secondary scalp tingle response).

  • keirmeister

    That video was supposed to make my scalp tingle….or somewhere else?

  • Nona

    I’ve had that my entire life. I once asked a Chinese Medicine doctor (as in acupuncture) about it. He understood at once, and said it was related to migraines (of all things) energy-wise.

  • Indigo

    I found the video a bit creepy but yes, I’m vaguely familiar with the context, a sort of frisson, as John described it. A similar response in esoteric Buddhist lore is sometimes categorized as being “visited by the gods.”

  • Tiger

    Thanks for the article. My guess is that ASMR also is triggered by unusual sound frequencies, that slightly disrupt our usual perception, like when people speak slowly/softly or with an accent. Accents are particularly successful in the ASMR community (Maria and her light Russian accent is an example). Personnally I have a thing with the French accent that I find highly “tingly” (examples: male http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiAZO9rREk0 or female http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DutTOwcsW8w ).

  • Henry Owen

    It sounds intriguing but, no, I haven’t felt it. :(

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