This text was produced in response to Bodily Poetries, the first in the Sculpture & Poetry series of in-conversations hosted by the Henry Moore Institute, in partnership with the University of Leeds and Corridor8. In this event, Heather Phillipson and Raymond Antrobus discussed ‘the body’ as a locus for speaking, writing, feeling, listening and making.
The body as receptor
Spiders creeping up your spine,
Now you’ve got the shiveries.
Maybe you’ve felt it too. That soft-creeping sensation as if someone is whispering at the back of your neck. Maybe it’s caught you off guard a few times. Maybe you’ve watched hundreds of videos on YouTube trying to reach it. Maybe you’ve never had the language to talk about it.
I don’t remember exactly which videogame we were about to play, but it was a warm, early afternoon and we’d taken the console downstairs into the living room so we could use the big TV. For once, Dad wasn’t watching the bar go across the bottom of the screen on Sky Sports. My best friend and I were both sitting cross-legged on the carpet, legs tangled with the controller wires we’d hastily plugged in, necks craned, heads resting on hunched shoulders. Our elbows would stay locked until we’d beaten the game or his parents arrived to pick him up.
He was flipping through the cases and suggested a game. I said yes. With a quiet concentration he opened the case, releasing the lid clips with a soft snap. Then he made the familiar finger-thumb motion to prise the disc from its hub, turning it over, blowing on it – not in the way you would to clean a surface covered in dust; it was more of an open-mouthed heavy sigh, which fogged up the reflective side. With the corner of a sleeve, he worked in precise circular motions, polishing until the entire disc caught the light, casting those small rainbow beams for a fleeting moment as he tilted it towards the window. Then he carefully handed the disc to me.
This static-like feeling started at the back of my head. Slowly, in concentric circles, or like the ripples you see when a large rock splashes into a still body of water, the feeling worked its way down my neck. It was the most aware I’d ever been of my body, the most aware I’d ever been of a sensation. For a moment it felt as if my consciousness and the sensation were one and the same place. I don’t think this kind of sensational feeling is something you can experience passively – when it’s there, you have to actively give in to it.
Within seconds it was gone.
It’s strange to notice a sensation and actively try to bring it closer to the surface. I thought, perhaps if I concentrated more on the situation I could touch it or see it, or I could prolong it, or even figure out how to trigger it. How do you explain to someone that the back of your neck is tingling because you watched them clean a disc? How do you tell them that being handed an object has completely relaxed you? Of course, back then, when I was about six years old, I didn’t have the language to even ask those questions, let alone attempt to answer them.
Now I know I’m not the only one.
On a SteadyHealth forum in 2007, user okaywhatever posted ‘WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD’. They described sensations we’d later come to associate with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses, or ASMR. The post received six pages of responses and spurred a second thread that ran to another ten. Strangers all over the world said yes, they get this sensation too. They said it’s a relief to not be alone. They asked one another, what is it? They shared YouTube videos that trigger it. A final user said, ‘Let’s all bottle this feeling up and sell it. I think we’ve got a million-dollar idea with that’.
weird sensation feels good
I get this sensation sometimes there’s no real trigger for it
it just happens it’s been happening since I was a kid as a child
while watching a puppet show and when I was being read a story
as a teenager when a classmate did me a favour and when a friend drew
on the palm of my hand with markers sometimes it happens
for no reason at all I’ll just be sitting or whatever doing whatever
and it happens it’s like in my head and all over my body sometimes
my eyes will water what is it? I’m not complaining cause I love it
I think I know what you may be talking about I was looking for an answer
since I was a child I got this strange sensation in my head it happens to me
I discovered when certain people talk especially when they talk slowly
or when people move slowly or when even sometimes someone is driving
slowly I love the feeling the only way I can describe it is like
a silvery sparkle through my head and brain almost like a sort of—
what is this? is this the same feeling you were describing?
Yes! I get this too I have no idea what causes it
it usually only lasts a few minutes and as far as I know
no residual after effects I wonder what the hell
it is it feels damn good but could it be something damaging?
I’ll chime in here it almost feels like getting goose bumps
the tingling sensation fades in and out in waves it’s probably
the most enjoyable sensation possible if anyone knows anything
about this I would love to finally understand this
I experience all the tingling
the euphoria it is when people are talking about nothing to each other
I knew other people had to have this I’ve had it for as long as I remember
mostly what sets it off is when people gesture with their hands while talking
I used to watch evangelists talk and tell their stories and I would just ride
for hours sometimes it rivals ecstasy at times
The body as instrument
‘ASMR🦷 Dentist Removes Your Rotten Teeth!’ was the first result I found when I searched for the initialism on YouTube last night. Not even a day later, it’s had 98,000 views. 98,000 people have watched someone roleplay a dentist sitting them down and removing their aching, rotting teeth. Perhaps I’m a bit biased – my mom was so scared of the dentist she needed to be hypnotised just for check-ups, despite which she’s managed to get herself banned from six different surgeries across the Midlands – but I can’t think of anything worse than roleplaying this scenario for fun, pleasure or relaxation. But the numbers speak for themselves. Who’s watching dentist roleplays? And perhaps more importantly,who’s enjoying them?
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response describes the pleasant, tingling sensation around the top of your head, neck or back, in response to particular audio-visual ‘triggers’. Different people can be more or less susceptible to different triggers. On triggers, Rob Gallagher says:
‘ASMR is often associated with scenes of intimacy and concentrated attention: it might be brought on by watching someone performing a meticulous task, by the cadence of a voice, by whispering and soft sounds or by expressions of care, interest and affirmation’.
Over the past ten years, ASMR as a medium, an artform and as an income stream, has exploded. We’ve seen thousands of people whisper, speak softly, tap, scratch and recontextualise sounds in front of their cameras. Some have had much greater success than others.
There’s a particular type of democracy attributed to the success of ASMR videos. While many of the usual marketing and audience development techniques are used (YouTube is a social media platform after all), the intimate audience involvement required for ASMR to be ‘successful’ has pushed those who are ‘good’ at triggering to the top of most rankings we use to measure success online, like views and comments. Some videos, while objectively low in camera and microphone quality, are much more successful than those with more expensive recording setups. There seems to be an authenticity that’s impossible to replicate – it can only be felt.
Many popular creators become known for a distinct niche; the way they percussively tap on objects, or the lilt or breathiness in their voice, or the creation of a unique mouth sound that others have then gone on to replicate like Heather Feather’s sksksk.
I wonder about the role intuition plays in sounding out, shaping or discovering new triggers. ASMR appears to be a practice guided by experimentation, acts of feeling out what sounds may be good for audiences. There’s something very bodily, something non-verbal, maybe innately responsive about a creator thinking, yes, this sounds good, and then sharing it with their audiences. ASMR extends beyond language and into the realm of intimacy. It functions ‘to elicit… euphoria’, according to Gallagher. He says that ASMR is, ‘a profoundly contemporary form of moving image culture, helping stressed and sleep-deprived viewers to chill out’. It stimulates an active relationship between performer and audience.
I think there’s something really simple and human about it. We all want to feel good, and these creators want to help.
The body transported
I believe a type of transformational magic takes place between performer and audience during ASMR. There’s something primal and bodily that blooms between both parties during the process. There is an amount of give on both sides: the artist’s own body and by extension any tools they work with to create audio-visual triggers, their passion, their desire to want to ‘help’ in some way; and the audience giving up their preconceptions, their energy, to concentrate and engage with the artist, to give in to the stimulus. In that sense it really isn’t different from any other artform.
I imagine ASMR sitting alongside poetry and art in its capacity for dual purpose. Here’s a medium where the content can be absolutely anything; I’ve given myself to videos where I’ve enrolled in language lessons in Greek and Russian, attended cranial nerve examinations, and watched someone simply talk about different brands of cereal. I learned a lot in those videos (especially the one about cereal) but under the surface, unspoken, each video has asked me the same question: does this trigger an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response?
This strange artform holds a type of magic in its ability to operate across space and time. You might find a five-year-old video from the other side of the world, but its transformational power isn’t diminished during the exchange. Where ASMR stands out to me is in its ability to produce such profound somatic responses. These ‘tingles’ are sought out all the time online, often as a relaxation tool. It’s so different to the goosebump sensations we might experience when a piece of the puzzle falls into place in prose, or when facing really striking art, or hearing incredibly moving music. The ‘tingles’ with ASMR are much more contained, familiar and comfortable. I’m not being asked to take a risk, I’m being invited to rest with a friend I trust.
The body alone
In March 2020, alongside almost everyone else, my world was reduced overnight to the four walls of my flat. At the time, I was living in a studio apartment. Save for short supermarket trips and a poor attempt to get into running, I spent every day in the same room completely by myself. At first I quite enjoyed the almost meditative rhythm of this newfound isolation, but solitude by choice is far from loneliness by consequence. And I got lonely. Although I kept in touch with friends online, before I knew it, I’d not physically seen my friends or family for a month. Then another. And another. I hadn’t hugged anyone, hadn’t been hugged by anyone for the longest time in my life. All these small, quiet moments I’d taken for granted were suddenly no longer mine to expect.
ASMR greeted me with the warm familiarity of a favourite book I knew the ending to. It’s the hug you fall into, the easy conversation you pick straight back up. ASMR wasn’t a replacement for comfort or intimacy, but it did help provide an interminable safe space to retreat to at a time when everything outside the safety of my small flat was in flux.
ASMR works hard alongside art, poetry and other forms of creative self-expression. Here is a medium as encompassing as any other that also pushes to develop interpersonal capacities between audience and performer, recontextualising online spaces into antidotal lodestones, brief reprieves of care in an accelerating world. When it comes to ASMR, our own bodies know best. We find value in Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response-centric encounters not necessarily for what information they contain, or what we can learn from them, but for how they make us feel.
(soft-spoken) but before I had even found a language
to speak of it to speak of this feeling
this mellowed river this stone’s throw this electric (whisper: electric x3)
the way water moves on in ripples (whisper: ripples x3) a body folding
(pan left) or a river that is a river (pan centre) moving on itself and moving
(pan right.) in all its (whisper) current (current x3)
(pan centre, soft-spoken) the stone is becoming the stone became
(pan left, whisper) action
(pan centre) we had action and language just enough language to—
intent (pan right, ‘t’ clucking)
(pan centre, soft-spoken) you passed (pan right) me (pan left, whisper)
a disc (‘sk’ sounds, pan left to right)
(pan centre, soft-spoken) and later older
later following a recipe not for this (tapping) not for this feeling this (silence)
(pan left, whisper) you have everything you need
(pan right, whisper) the hiss of the can the pressure (pressure x3)
you are saying -there you go- (pan left, whisper. there you go x3)
(pan centre, soft-spoken) is it this is it these objects what is it what—
(pan right, whisper) you don’t think that (pan centre, soft-spoken)
perhaps you were (silence) it’s just that (pan left, whisper)
to describe it it’s not it’s what (it’s what x3)
(pan right) it’s not a river it’s a lake it’s wind (pan left, mic blowing)
(pan centre, soft-spoken) is it definitely electric this slow clay this radio static a recipe
for shivering for waiting for (pan right, whisper) waiting
(silence then pan left, whisper) waiting for the body (pan right, whisper) respond
Callan Waldron-Hall is a writer based in Liverpool. His debut pamphlet, learning to be very soft, won the Poetry Business 2019 New Poets Prize.
This exploration is supported by Arts Council England, as part of the Sculpture & Poetry collaboration with Hentry Moore Institute and the University of Leeds.