I became aware of something new last week, partly due to watching the Super Bowl. I’m not a huge football fan, but given the Pop Culture cachet of the event and the commercials I feel like I should at least be aware of it. So, I usually at have it on in the background while I’m doing other things. This year one specific commercial drew my attention.
There’s a woman drinking Michelob beer in a mountain setting. She’s whispering, which is probably what drew my attention. But then she starts tapping her fingernails against the bottle, and dragging it across the tabletop. The focus of the commercial seems to be the soft sounds of the beer pouring into the glass and the fizzing of the bubbly foam. The quiet nature of it is what made me pay attention. I thought it was kind of weird for a commercial, and then promptly forgot about it.
A couple of days later a friend mentioned it to me and casually referred to something called ASMR. Apparently this is a thing. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. The internet definition of this is, ‟a feeling of well-being combined with a tingling sensation in the scalp and down the back of the neck, as experienced by some people in response to a specific gentle stimulus, often a particular sound.” If you do a YouTube search there are countless videos of people whispering and making quiet noises to provoke these reactions. Some of them are very long, designed to be played while you sleep.
Before I go further it’s important to say that this in not an erotic stimulation (though it’s the internet, so I’m sure it is for someone). ASMR is not described as a sexual reaction, but more as something that is relaxing with a slight euphoric quality.
This is not the response I have.
I watched about forty-five seconds of one of these and my reaction was, ‟Oh no...” I experienced a tingling sensation, but it was more of a ‟making my skin crawl” than a ‟feeling of well-being.”
A year or so ago I discovered the term Misophonia and it described something I have experienced most of my life. The internet definition of this is ‟a severe sensitivity to specific soft sounds and visual images. It also includes other forms of stimuli that cause an immediate extreme reaction.” This seems to be the opposite of ASMR and is mentioned in most of the articles I read about it.
Based on research, my form of this is mild compared to many people, and the trigger sounds seem to vary from person to person. Mine include chewing noises, slurping soup or coffee off a spoon, the sound of a cough drop rattling around someone’s teeth, and some repetitive sounds like finger tapping, or the ticking of a clock. Oh, and whistling. I once had a co-worker who whistled randomly and it was all I could do not to throw them out a window. There is no rational pattern to the things that annoy me and the things that don’t, and some days I am much more sensitive than others. There are times when this goes beyond annoying and I have a completely unreasonable anger, like the person making the noise is doing it just to piss me off.
This may seem odd to those who know me. I have music on a lot. I can read while listening to music. I can write while listening to music. I can’t sleep with music on. My brain locks on the sound and gets stimulated in ways different than when I’m awake and doing other things. It serves as an anchor to wakefulness that prevents me from falling asleep. The same is true for the ticking clock I mentioned earlier. There’s a battery operated clock in my old room at my parent’s house. Whenever I stay the night I have to take the clock completely out of the room or all I would do is be completely absorbed by the rhythmic ticking and never, ever fall asleep.
I’m good with white noise. Even though I have gotten used to city noises, more than I ever thought I would when I moved here, in the summer I sleep with a fan on. My bedroom is a third floor attic, so I need the fan anyway, but the sound drowns out everything else. In the winter the furnace noise serves the same purpose. I first started using a fan to sleep while in grad school when I shared an apartment with five other guys. It was never completely quiet there.
There are shamanic traditions where an invariable rhythmic beating of a drum is used to produce alternate states of consciousness. I think, for me, this altered state of consciousness would simply be a descent into madness. This may explain why certain kinds of music, those with very repetitive, fast, driving beats, are not enjoyable for me. And just not enjoyable, but at times annoying and anxiety producing (I’m looking at you, ska!).
I do believe that at least some of my reaction to noise is conditioned behavior. When I was eleven or twelve my Dad began working night shift six nights a week, which of course meant he slept during the day, which in turn meant I don’t think he ever slept well. Mom and I both became very attuned to noise. We watched TV at a lower volume. I listened to music almost exclusively through headphones. I was constantly aware of the rattling of plates or glasses, and most importantly, the volume of my speaking voice. I’m still a little uncomfortable with loud-talkers. ‟Shh... you’re going to wake Dad up.” This may have hyper-attuned me to these things that annoy me now, but there is probably biological brain-function stuff that is responsible as well.
I don’t have any big revelations from this, other than being amazed at how a beer commercial led me down a rabbit hole of research and self-reflection. Misophonia is not something that I think of as a severe problem in my life, and most days there are no triggers for it at all. But I am aware of it.
Just something else to chew on, loudly, I guess.