I have to begin this post with some pre-emptive defensiveness in order to deflect any eye-rolling that may ensue as you read on.
You know the kind of person (I would say a woman, but that’s just stereotyping) who will sometimes announce in a breathy voice while looking deep into your eyes and placing a hand on yours, “I’m just a very tactile person”? 
Well this post is not about how I am that kind of person. I think I’m a standardly tactile person, neither more nor less tactile than average. I have an unfairly caricatured image of the “very tactile person”; they like essential oils and tossing their hair; they like scented candles and suggestively caressing their wine glass. I’ll tell you who epitomizes this person, in my view. Did you ever watch Star Trek The Next Generation? Do you remember Deanna Troi? If the name doesn’t ring a bell maybe this will: she was the only crew member on the Starship Enterprise who was issued a plunging-V-neck Federation uniform. She was an “empath,” half human and half some kind of telepathic alien race. Her empathic abilities often manifested themselves in the form of bosom-heaving, fainting, and sensuous eating of chocolate ice-cream.
Anyway, I’m digressing. The point is that today’s dispatch is about a pleasurable sensory experience (not so much a tactile experience as an auditory-and-peripherally-visual experience, actually), but it is not pleasurable in some kind of Deanna-Troi-ooh-I’m just-so-sensuous-that-I can’t help-shuddering-with-pleasure-as-this-ice-cream-melts-on-my-tongue type of way.
Because that’s just supremely vexing and entirely deserving of a withering eye-roll.
Enough stalling. Allow me to come to the point.
Have you heard of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)?
I heard about it from He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved a couple of years ago. It was suddenly in the media for some reason, with particular attention being given to YouTube videos featuring people whispering and opening packages—both activities that supposedly trigger ASMR in people who claim to experience it.
“Hey, I think this might be that thing that you have!” he said.
I remember coming over and looking at the YouTube video of a woman whispering and another of someone going through her grandmother’s jewelry collection.
“Does watching this give you that feeling you get?” he asked.
“No way!” I replied. “This is totally bizarre. Getting pleasurable tingling sensations from listening to people whispering or watching someone go through a jewelry collection? What a bunch of weirdos!”
No, the sensation I get to which He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved was referring is quite different and is not induced by the same kinds of stimuli.
First of all, it’s not a tingling so much as a feeling of very deep relaxation like sinking into a hot tub, and it is stimulated by the following:
- Going through an automated “tunnel” car wash
- Watching someone use an electric razor
- Sitting in a room where someone is vacuuming
I also get some version of the same feeling, although not quite the same, from:
- Reclining in a dentist’s chair and overhearing the hum of the various instruments in the background
- Watching a planetarium show
- Watching from inside a room or car as someone manually cleans the windows with a squeegee.
I’ve actually never thought much until writing this post about what all these experiences have in common. But I suppose they’re not really so different from each other: what they share is that I, the subject, am comfortably at rest while the space around is suffused with a particular sort of constant, buzzy, ambient noise and, also, some kind of visual representation of an area of space being methodically cleared of some accumulated substance (dust; suds; stubble). In fact, now that I think about it, I recall, as a child, having the same feeling on frosty mornings when my Mum would use the frost scraper she kept in the glove compartment to steadily scrape away the thin film of ice from the windows while I was sitting inside the car.
The reason I started thinking about this phenomenon is because we went to the planetarium at Griffith Park Observatory at the weekend; I haven’t been to the planetarium since I was a child, but as soon as the idea was proposed I remembered that it was also one of the activities that elicits this sensation. Watching a planetarium show seems like the most straight-forwardly pleasurable of the activities described above. More puzzling is why the other, distinctly quotidian activities would induce this feeling of deep relaxation.
I have three theories, one vaguely evolutionary one, one more sociological-psychological one, and then, lastly, the one that I think is probably the most plausible.
Several articles about ASMR in the popular media included interviews with David Huron, a professor who studies music cognition at Ohio State. He was skeptical that ASMR was a distinct phenomenon distinct from other kinds of pleasure derived from aural stimuli; however, he did note (and discusses it here) that some kinds of auditory pleasure might be a form of surrogate “grooming.” The idea is that non-human primates spend an inordinate amount of time grooming each other, and that many human pleasures can be understood as surrogate forms of grooming: expressions of care that strengthen social bonds.
Now, this makes sense to me because a lot of the experiences that produce the relaxing feeling in me are, it strikes me, forms of surrogate grooming; something is been cleaned on my behalf; my immediate environment is being “groomed.” Also, I find being physically “groomed” incredibly relaxing. I used to think that this was a universal response; and, indeed, I think it is fairly common: if you remember taking enormous pleasure in having your hair checked for lice when you were a child, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. I love getting my hair cut and always want the stylist to tarry as long as possible simply because the sensation of someone playing with my hair is so delightful.
OK, so that’s the vaguely evolutionary explanation.
A lot of the activities that elicit this response in me are very firmly associated with childhood and with being taken care of. Moreover, they smack unmistakably of a privileged Western twentieth-century-late-capitalist childhood: electric razors! Automated car-washes! Vacuum cleaners! I’m actually ashamed to admit this because it so clearly marks me as the bourgeois scum that I surely am, but I only discovered the vacuum cleaner thing when I was at university. It was characteristic of the nannying of undergraduates at Cambridge that every day a cleaning woman would come in to empty the bin in your dorm room. She would knock and if you didn’t reply she would just open the door with her master key and empty your bin. And, likewise, once a week, she would come in and vacuum your room. Sometimes I would be sitting at my desk working when she came in and that’s when I discovered that the sensation of someone vacuuming around me was bizarrely relaxing, again in the submerging-into-a-hot-tub sense. 
That one’s pretty perverse, I know; it sounds a bit Martin Amis, doesn’t it? Except, that, obviously, it would be so much worse in his version.
This one’s for you, Paul.
So …. A lot of the activities that elicit this response involve sitting in some kind of reclining position while someone else at a slight distance from me is using some kind of electric instrument.
When I put it like that, I think the answer’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it?
I was abducted by aliens when I was a child and, while the aliens naturally used some kind of sophisticated memory-erasing device to eliminate the experience from my conscious mind, I still possess the residual memory of how they gave me this special relaxing alien drug and then let me sit in a special alien reclining chair so they could observe my vital signs while at the same time they pottered around using all of their special alien technological instruments to steer the ship and stuff.
Right? Doesn’t everything just fall into place now? And that’s why the planetarium show also induces the response! Because it reminds me of looking out the spaceship’s window as we hurtled through space!
So there you have it.
What do you think? Does one explanation strike you as more plausible than the others? Also … do you have some version of this? Or is it just me? And what do you think we should call it? Autonomous-sensory-lazy-cow-enjoys-watching-you-clean-stuff-up-while-she-sits-on-her-arse-response?
Oh, finally, I’ll note here, in case you’re wondering: there are enough other readily available pleasures in life that I don’t seek out any of these; just every now and then they come along and I think, oh, yeah! That thing!
And, in any case, I know that, one day, I’ll be able to experience it all the time when the aliens come back for me.
 No, I do not mean you. Or you. Or you. I don’t have any particular person in mind so much as a character. Also, no, I don’t mind if you are actually a tactile person. I like being hugged! I’m happy when you reach inside the back of my shirt and tuck in my label for me! It’s all good! It’s just this particular self-presentation to which I object.
 When I first described the vacuuming relaxation-response to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved he asked, dryly, “and you’re quite sure that it only occurs when someone else is vacuuming?” Relevant here is also the fact that we own a Roomba, which, unfortunately, does not elicit the same response.