The gentle sound of a whispering voice, tapping of nails on a hard surface, sheets of paper rubbing together; these are just some of the noises which can trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). ASMR is a certain sensation felt in the scalp, neck, and upper spine, triggered by certain soft noises. Originally described as “the tingles,” the term ASMR was coined in an internet chat room around 2008. This "official" name made it easier for those experiencing it to discover the feeling as more than just random euphoria, and instead a sense of relaxation which can be controlled through certain sounds.
Because the triggers and intensity of ASMR varies so extremely from person to person, it’s so far been difficult to do much conclusive scientific research on the feeling. It’s a general consensus, however, that those who experience ASMR are predisposed to it, and it’s not an experience that can be learned. Berlin based artist Claire Tolan says she’s noticed since childhood an ability to conjure this shivery feeling when focusing on certain sounds. It was not until 2013 she realized this sensitivity had a name. “At the time I was wasting a lot go time on the internet as you do, and I was really interested in these yawning videos on YouTube, where when they yawn, I yawn," she tells The Creators Project. "I quickly realized that people were making yawning fetish videos, like sexy yawns. Then I got into this world of Youtube fetish videos, which is super interesting, because none of them are so graphic as to trigger Youtube’s content regulations. It’s people eating, it’s people getting their socks dirty outside.”
Talking with friends about this fascinating Youtube eventually brought Tolan to ASMR content. “ASMR really caught me because it was so much more complex than fetish videos. I mean fetish videos are obviously complex, and ASMR, sometimes people use them as fetish videos, object fetishes. But they aren’t intended 98% of the time to be sexual. So there was just another way to read them entirely,” she explains.
Once she discovered the online community surrounding ASMR, she became fascinated with the DIY nature of it. How thousands of random strangers around the world, using webcams and camera phones, could create a sort of auto-therapeutic network. For many experiencing ASMR is greater than just a feeling, it can help quell anxiety, cure insomnia, and lessen a sense of loneliness. “I'm interested in the use of ASMR as a coping mechanism for this particular experience of anxiety, as well as the socio-politically-induced PTSD that often accompanies it. I'm not saying that ASMR is a cure, by any means, but by looking very closely at a coping mechanism, spinning it around and around, maybe it is possible to illuminate something about these feelings of helplessness,” Tolan explains. Exploring these subjects through her art, Tolan hosts a radio show every other Tuesday on Berlin Community Radio where she plays potentially ASMR triggering sounds. She’s also working on creating an ASMR centered roleplaying game. A similar concept to Dungeons and Dragons, it will feature dice and a game master to lead players through an ASMR provoking narrative.
As part of 3hd Festival, Tolan will be bringing to life some of the narratives to be featured in her game, by hosting a workshop where volunteers will learn one of the stories and perform it as an ASMR-triggering choir. The story will be accompanied by windchime music inspired by the 17th century English church tradition of change-ringing. “The bells in these towers at the time were not meant to be rung in chords, but separately in arpeggios," explains Tolan. "The bells are hung in a circle, and change ringing basically cycles through different bell sounding orders.” To account for the relatively limited way it’s physically possible for the bells to move due to their tight proximity, complex mathematical compositions are required to write the ringing patterns.
For those who don’t experience ASMR, explanations on the sensation and community surrounding it, can be lengthy. But for those that do, Tolan believes projects such as hers could potentially make a large global impact. “The individual experiences planetary-scale systems as a kind of sublime—things like climate change, global finance, the mechanisms of the deep state—and the experience of this sublime is one of anxiety, precarity, catatonia,” says Tolan. Issues of such complexity are paralyzing, and awareness of them can plunge us into mindsets hinged on impossibility. But ASMR provides a way out: like oil to a rusty hinge, the momentary euphoria offers freedom from the crushing anxiety, freedom to think, to solve, for things to be possible. All it takes is a few gently sounded bells and whistles.