Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Theory: Is ASMR Actually a type of Synaesthesia?

It’s been a concern in my mind for the past while that what we have been researching and referring to as ASMR or other names might all ready be out there, perhaps known by another name.
One theory that has cropped up in several places in threads or forums about ASMR or AIE is that it’s called synaesthesia. And that people who experience it are known as synaesthetes.

There’s a website about it with research taking place at the University of Waterloo under the Synaesthesia Research Group. If you take a look at the index or splash page, you might see some similarities between the two when you read the write up:
“Synaesthesia is a condition in which ordinary stimuli lead to extraordinary experiences. There are many types of synaesthesia. Some synaesthetes have conscious experiences of vivid colors when listening to music or hearing other types of sounds. Other synaesthetes experience strong tactile sensations (itching, tingling) when hearing noises such as those emitted by a vacuum cleaner."
Now, note I underlined a few sentences there that we can relate to with ASMR. Especially with predominantly Type B ASMR experiencers, like myself, where sounds and other external stimuli act as triggers which initiate the sensation.

But when I look at the rest of it, even the theme of the website seems to suggest that it’s more related to colours. When people see, hear or think about something to do with letters or numbers, it sets off a visual experience, which from what I understand makes them “see” colours. Whether they literally see colours or not I don’t know. I don’t experience it.

And it also doesn’t explain Type A ASMR experiencers, who claim to not need any sort of external stimuli to elicit these sensations we’ve come to experience. They get it by a form of meditation or by thinking back to a past ASMR experience, in some cases.

And when they talk about listening to sounds, they don’t list a lot of triggers that could set it off. I certainly don’t get it while listening to a vacuum cleaner, of all things. That would likely be low on the list of things that set it off for me, personally. Now when someone uses a broom, a rake, or a dustpan and brush – now we’re talking.

I don’t know if anyone in the ASMR community experiences colours like the website explains. As far as I know we all mainly get the tingling sensations in the head which can spread to other body parts. I don’t even know if ASMR is as widespread as synaesthesia. ASMR could just be one grouping of synaesthesia. I know you don’t want to believe it, but there it is. It could be a possibility.

I’ve talked about this to other members of the core group, and even though some of us might be open to the idea, I’m sure the rest of us, myself included, would be quite disappointed. We want ASMR to be something special and new. And it is. I’ve noticed how on these threads, ASMR experiencers have defended it, and pretty much disagreed with the synaesthesia theory.

I would definitely still run the blog and continue to participate within the network and community. So I don’t know if it would really even change that much it it were true. I’d have to change the bloody name of the blog and all that other stuff though.

Here's to hoping.


  1. Synesthesia doesn't always have to do with colors.

    In my case in particular, I taste words. And I don't need to see and/or hear them in order to taste them. I can taste them just thinking about them...

  2. ASMR is a form of synaesthesia. Synaethesia is, in its most basic simplified explanation, when one sense triggers another. Some people can see smells, taste colors, see sound, etc. For others it deals with spacial recognition, for instance certain dates, or numbers feel like they have a physical location. I've even heard of some people feeling like numbers, letters, words or colors have certain personality traits (green with envy, feeling blue, etc). And yes, the sense of 'touch' is among the possible sensations for those with synaesthesia. Hearing, seeing, or smelling something and having that trigger an actual physical sensation falls into the vary definition of synaesthesia. The reason type A's can trigger by memory is as simple as why the color 'blue' still looks 'blue' when you are only remembering it. When you think of a color (rather than being able to physically see it) you still remember it as the exact same color, don't you? Well it's the same thing. If hearing a particular sound also triggers you to feel a certain sensation then those senses are linked as one complete experience. The same as you remembering the color blue as being blue, they remember the sound as feeling scratchy. I'm not sure why anyone would have problem with this being synaesthesia. Most people don't realize they have it until they're adults because it's just the way they are, it feels completely normal to them. They don't feel more or less special, they just feel like themselves. Some people with it do feel a little weird when trying to explain it to other people, but since all humans experience sensory overlap to some degree it's usually pretty easy to explain when you find the right examples.

  3. I've been experiencing ASMR for as long as I can remember. It's a common occurrence in my life now, and I have many distinct memories of it from childhood. Episodes are usually brought on by soft sounds made by people in a semi-quiet environment such as an office.

    I'm also a synesthete, something I had no knowledge of until my mathematician husband who also has a cognitive science degree mentioned the phenomenon one day after attending a talk. Numbers, letters, months, years, and words have color, gender, and personality; sounds have color and sometimes can be seen; some words can be tasted.

    As an aside, I'm not on the autism spectrum, nor do I have any other sensory abnormalities.

    It certainly makes sense to me to think of ASMR as a type of synesthesia.

    Thanks for this blog...until today, I thought I was the only one!

  4. I'm only 15, and I just discovered ASMR months ago. I don't know if 15 is a bit early for some people, but in some ways I'm glad I discovered it, and in other ways I'm not... I'm glad I can use it to my advantage and all, and in a way it makes me feel kind of special, but sometimes I feel I can overuse it. I use ASMR mainly to help me sleep, but sometimes I find that I can't sleep if I don't have an ASMR video playing while I'm trying to fall asleep (I'm a type B by the way). Anyway, I have no problem with ASMR being linked with synesthesia, because it gives me more answers. I guess unlike some people I get really curious, and especially with things that affect me, so if I have synesthesia, than cool, I have an explanation and I don't always have to wonder why my friends and family don't get the tingles when they hear someone flipping through a book or scratching a surface. And also, I hate it when people associate ASMR with sexual occurences, because ASMR isn't sexual. At least not for me. Apparently dopamine will kill off any ASMR tingles you get anyway, so having anything sexual linked with it wouldn't work. Plus it's just creepy. And does anyone think taste and smell linked together could be a form synesthesia? Because everyone thinks I'm weird when I smell my food before I eat it... I thought everyone could tell what something tasted like by it's smell?? And I also associate numbers, words, months, years, etc. with personalities and emotions. I thought everyone else did that too. Like 5 is a boring number while 2 is a happy number! I didn't realize how different I was until I found out about ASMR. It really opens a bunch of new doors once you get into it.

    1. Taste and smell isn't a form of synaesthesia, because they are linked in everyone. A lot of the taste is in the smell. That's why people sometimes can't taste when they break their nose and have it stuffed! It's also why people often no longer want the food after cooking a big meal for hours, because the smell has desensitised them.

    2. I can remember instances of ASMR as early as 4 years old, and talking to my friends and family about this "thing" that happens, thinking that everyone had it. For awhile I thought I wasn't explaining it properly, and that's why no one understood, but when I became a teenager, realized it was just me (or so I thought). I'm now 31 and found the online community/YouTube videos just a few years ago via a Mental Floss post on Facebook, and then saw Molly Shannon on Conan talking about it shortly after. I don't think there's an age limit for experiencing it, and am really happy you found out about it early on. It's fascinating!

    3. Yea, ASMR is great :D. I don't remember when I discovered it for myself but the first time I remember having it was when I heard someone typing on a keyboard, It was some time before my teens, maybe around the age of 10. Knowing that there is a community of us now is great. I've always kept ASMR to myself and now I've found all these people in the same University as me experience it. So I believe it's never too young to discover it. As for it being part of Synesthesia, I would love to know more about that myself as well.

  5. I don't have it in my hand right now, but several years ago I learned about synesthesia (US spelling) from an article in "Smithsonian" magazine. I'm trying to find it online. There's a stub from 2001 by Susan Hornik, which may be it. The article I read made it clear that synesthesia has many different forms, and some people have just one while others have several, in forms that can vary from person to person. (Since the brain is such a complex organ, anything that affects it will usually vary more than conditions of the arm or kidney, for instance.)

  6. I have both synesthesia and ASMR. Very different sensations, but it wouldn't surprise me if they have some cognitive similarities or correlations.

  7. Why does it being a form of synesthesia make it any less special? I'd say learning more about how it works and what it's connected with, and spreading the word so we can grow the community, makes it even more special. I'm not afraid of learning what it truly is, and to do that, you have to let go of your biases and misconceptions when you see them. It's still special to all of us who experience it.

  8. I've known I was a synesthete for years (I was even included in a scientific study of the phenomenon) and only recently discovered that I have ASMR as well. Until we can see MRIs and other scientific studies of the brain while experiencing ASMR, it's premature to lump these two together, IMO.

    I will say, however, that as novel and interesting as my synesthesia experiences are, they're nothing like the pleasure of ASMR. To me, it feels like different systems are involved.

    1. Or it could be that ASMR is a form of synesthesia and that what you experience as synesthesia and ASMR are completely different in how they feel. How we perceive sound and smell feel different from one another. Wouldn't different combinations of the senses produce different experiences/feelings?

  9. I experience grapheme-colour synesthesia (number and words are inherently coloured) and ASMR. I think that ASMR probably falls under the category of auditory-tactile synesthesia because sounds induce physical sensations in the body. I don't know why people would care if it was a form of synesthesia, because it's still a really cool thing to experience.


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