(There’s a word for this?)
A few years ago, a friend of mine started to play with my hair while we talked. She ran her fingers up my neck to where it met my skull, and a pleasant tingling sensation went through the back of my brain along my scalp. I tried to describe this to her, and she told me that she shared that sensation when people brushed her hair.
We shared the moment of it, and I felt relieved that she understood. It sounded odd even to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was anything anyone else had felt before. After talking about it for a while, we still couldn’t quite articulate what that feeling was— it wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t like a limb falling asleep, it wasn’t really anything other than a nice sensation on the back of our heads.
A while after that point, my brother gave me a word for it, or rather, an abbreviation: ASMR. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and not everyone experiences it. My brother does, though, and he introduced me to an entire community of people online who try to trigger this response in other people through youtube videos or other recordings.
While my experiences with ASMR are few and far between (because I don’t have people playing with my hair very often outside haircuts and rare, affectionate moments in friendships) many people experience ASMR from all sorts of sounds— clicking, brushing, white noise, typing, the sounds of lips touching, certain speech patterns or accents, or whispers. In fact, many of the videos online are just called “whisper videos.” These are often long, because many people with ASMR use them to help with insomnia or to relax and reach a more calmed state of mind.
ASMR is also triggered by close personal attention or watching someone perform a task. I sometimes have ASMR from watching someone paint or draw, but I know others can experience it watching instructional videos.
I noticed a while after this that I sometimes felt a sensation similar to it from certain music, images, or lines in books. These usually came with an emotional realization of some kind. As I discovered, this isn’t exactly the same as ASMR, but it still has a word. It’s called “frisson.” Frisson comes from a French word meaning “shiver” or “thrill” and is often felt as a sudden burst of emotion that evokes a physical reaction of tingling or shuddering sensation.
These can often come from climaxes of movies, shows, or books, or certain lines of poetry. I can reliably evoke frisson through watching music videos or listening to songs that seem to strongly represent what I know of a loved fictional character, or any videos that have an emotional realization component.
One thing that’s interesting to me is that it’s not limited to my first experience with that moment. You might assume that because it has to do with realization, it would only work during the initial experience, but I’ve actually found it stronger in subsequent experiences. There’s something about letting myself engage fully with a surge of emotional stimulus that lets me access the feeling of frisson.
Over the past weekend, I went to a poetry reading, and though there were many beautiful, emotional, thought-provoking poems read, I experienced frisson from listening to someone read the poem I already knew. Something about the familiarity let me engage with the emotions present in a more intimate way.
It doesn’t need to be anything exceptionally emotional either. I have experienced frisson from one-panel web comics.
While the sensations of ASMR and frisson are a bit similar to me (both create a pleasant physical tingling sensation that begins along my skull) the two communities are very strict about making their differences known. ASMR is purely a physical response to sensations of touch, sound, or sight, and can be sustained for minutes. Frisson is a physical response intertwined with an emotional realization and is typically a sudden spreading of sensation that ends in seconds.
Having these words creates a great opportunity for engaging with the world. Because there is a word for frisson, there are communities where people can discuss the moments in all kinds of art that they experience so strongly it’s felt physically. Because there is a word for ASMR, there are communities of people to discuss the unique power of the simple sensory information that fills our world, and how our bodies and brains can engage with this in an intimate, inexpressible way.
It was quite a while before I saw my friend again. Life sometimes gets in the way of our connections, and it might have been about a year between when we had our conversation on the strange brain tingles and when it was brought it up again.
We went inside and I told her that that I had a word for her. I pulled up the page my brother had shown me on ASMR, and the realization made her smile.
“There’s a word for this?”