It's a tightening at the back of the throat, or a tingling around your scalp, a chill that comes over you when you pay close attention to something, such as a person whispering instructions. It's called the autonomous sensory meridian response, and until 2010 it didn't exist.
I first heard about the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) from British journalist Rhodri Marsden. He had become mesmerised by intentionally boring videos he found on YouTube, things like people explaining how to fold towels, running hair dryers or role-playing interactions with dentists. Millions of people were watching the videos, reportedly for the pleasurable sensations they generated.
Rhodri asked my opinion as a psychologist. Could this be a real thing? "Sure," I said. If people say they feel it, it has to be real – in some form or another. The question is what kind of real is it? Are all these people experiencing the same thing? Is it learnt, or something we are born with? How common is it? Those are the kind of questions we'd ask as psychologists. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the ASMR is what happened to it before psychologists put their minds to it.
Presumably the feeling has existed for all of human history. Each person discovered the experience, treasured it or ignored it, and kept the feeling to themselves. That there wasn't a name for it until 2010 suggests that most people who had this feeling hadn't talked about it. It's amazing that it got this far without getting a name. In scientific terms, it didn't exist.
But then, of course, along came the 21st Century and, like they say, even if you're one in a million there's thousands of you on the internet. Now there's websites, discussion forums, even a Wikipedia page. And a name. In fact, many names – “Attention Induced Euphoria”, “braingasm”, or “the unnamed feeling” are all competing labels that haven't caught on in the same way as ASMR.
Myth becomes fact
This points to something curious about the way we create knowledge, illustrated by a wonderful story about the scientific history of meteorites. Rocks falling from the sky were considered myths in Europe for centuries, even though stories of their fiery trails across the sky, and actual rocks, were widely, if irregularly reported. The problem was that the kind of people who saw meteorites and subsequently collected them tended to be the kind of people who worked outdoors – that is, farmers and other country folk. You can imagine the scholarly minds of the Renaissance didn't weigh too heavily on their testimonies. Then in 1794 a meteorite shower fell on the town of Siena in Italy. Not only was Siena a town, it was a town with a university. The testimony of the townsfolk, including well-to-do church ministers and tourists, was impossible to deny and the reports written up in scholarly publications. Siena played a crucial part in the process of myth becoming fact.
Where early science required authorities and written evidence to turn myth into fact, ASRM shows that something more democratic can achieve the same result. Discussion among ordinary people on the internet provided validation that the unnamed feeling was a shared one. Suddenly many individuals who might have thought of themselves as unusual were able to recognise that they were a single group, with a common experience.
There is a blind spot in psychology for individual differences. ASMR has some similarities with synaesthesia (the merging of the senses where colours can have tastes, for example, or sounds produce visual effects). Both are extremes of normal sensation, which exist for some individuals but not others. For many years synaesthesia was a scientific backwater, a condition viewed as unproductive to research, perhaps just the product of people's imagination rather than a real sensory phenomenon. This changed when techniques were developed that precisely measured the effects of synaesthesia, demonstrating that it was far more than people’s imagination. Now it has its own research community, with conferences and papers in scientific journals.