I first heard the initialism ASMR about four or five years ago. My husband was listening to a podcast and one of the show’s guests just happened to mention this phenomenon they’d recently discovered on YouTube. Listening to their description of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response was an unexpected moment of validation for me. I knew exactly what it was like to feel sound tingling up your spine, at the base of your skull. Sometimes, it could almost feel like an intimate whisper raising the hairs on my neck–and that’s probably the precise reason I never told anyone about it (because god forbid a girl raised in a tiny southern town should ever speak of feeling a pleasurable sensation).
Finding out that this was a real thing that other people experienced, that it had a name, was a big deal. I could find others who shared my ability to get “tingles,” as some call it. I could look up information to explain it people who didn’t get it, and they would probably not think I was delusional because there were articles to back up my claims. And perhaps best of all, I could find videos by “ASMRtists” designed to help me get my tingle on.
Unfortunately, once I began browsing all the different offerings and featured trigger sounds, it didn’t take long to find one that I knew would elicit the exact opposite of the intended effect. I scrolled on as quickly as I could, because even the thumbnail was enough to turn my stomach and set me on edge.
Videos of people eating. Audibly. On purpose. WHY. I know, it’s probably wrong to trigger-shame someone, or whatever you would call what I’m doing right now, but I simply cannot even begin to fathom how anyone could ever, by any stretch of the imagination, find anything even remotely enjoyable about that sound.
Can you relate? Do you wonder why your friends think you’re weird for plugging your ears when someone is going to town on a piece of gum? Then allow me to introduce you to another, far less pleasant auditory phenomenon: misophonia. That’s right, there’s a name for it and it is real and you’re not crazy for being nervous about going to the theater when there’s a chance you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of people eating popcorn which you should do with your mouth closed and for the love of all that is good in this world
please just learn to eat like a civilized human so I can watch my movie without fantasizing about your demise.*
I am leaving this bit of hyperbole in despite its potential to offend, but please hear me out: I am well aware of the fact that some folks have no control over their chomping style. I have a disability or three myself and am so not trying to belittle anyone in that situation. My mini rant was meant to illustrate how little control I tend to have over my reaction to that particular stimulus. On a good day, I’m a fairly rational woman. Mostly. I think. You know, except for the generalized anxiety and stuff. But no matter how many times I tell myself, “This is a normal part of every day life, a function vital to this person’s survival, mastication is perfectly natural,” etc., this part of my brain just goes fully bananas.
And it suuuucks. I’ve been living with this thing since I was a kid and it has had a major impact on my quality of life. I was made fun of by my friends–well, the ones who didn’t unfriend me for being a weirdo and who for whatever reason tolerated my rudeness as I constantly railed at them for eating wrong. It’s embarrassing as hell, trying to discreetly plug one ear while talking to someone who’s smacking their gum, focusing on their eyes as I struggle to follow the conversation and not let my expression betray my distress. I can’t focus on work if someone is sniffling, coughing, or clearing their throat too often. Did I mention that it’s not just eating that puts me in berserker mode?
Now here’s where it gets complicated: Going back to ASMR, you’ll find the majority of videos out there include talking of some kind–“intense whispering,” “softly spoken,” and “unintelligible” are a few I remember off the top of my head. When there’s no description of the verbal situation, it seems to default to conversational volume but is very … wet. The ASMR crowd is all about texture, generally speaking, and I’m no exception. It’s hard to describe, but the deliberate and exaggerated articulation heard in some of these videos just does it for some of us.
The problem for me is that the line between pleasantly wet/articulate voices and rage-inducing gross noises is very, very thin and prone to shifting without notice; what is a good trigger today could be a bad one tomorrow. Perhaps there’s some subtle difference that I’m not even aware of until it makes me cringe, or my misophonia is just as fickle as the rest of my body and mind.
Whatever its quirks may be, it’s still good to know it has a name. Just like with ASMR, I’ve found that I’m not the only one, and I can begin to connect with others who share my unique relationship with sound. I hope that by sharing my experience here, I can provide someone else with that moment of clarity and validation I once had.
Additional Information and Resources:
* Important Note: If you do actually feel the urge to act on any violent impulses your miso brings to mind, please talk to a therapist. This is apparently a thing in some extreme cases and I’m not judging you, but I’m pretty sure you know actually stabbing people isn’t cool or legal.