Sound into Feeling, Stone into Flesh
Touch Museum essay by Nancy Webb
The sound of the artist’s voice is like the tenderest vice grip on my scalp. The hard “c” and hissed “s” beginning the words “cortical substance” blaze an electrifying trail in a horseshoe shape around each ear. Breath is important. In this case, it can’t be felt or seen, but is a purely aural experience. I hear you breathe out and I can build the architecture of your lungs inside my head, sense the warmth of your body and cadence of its movements (air in, air out). I am trying to listen – trying my best to do my job as an art writer and focus on the slow dictation of Henri Bergson’s illuminating ideas, but I’m so fucking relaxed. I’m liquefying. Can you separate the nervous system from its corporeal conditions? Spin it slowly on a pedestal? That process of isolation feels absurd; it leaves biological functions nude, unbound by context. Weitz's video Brain ASMR Whispering Bergson asks: what would a bare brain feel like? Unshelled. Icy, milky fluids drizzling down the sides of this most precious organ. Pouring over and coating a forbidden place – a place that is never or rarely touched by substances external to the body. I don’t hear the final word uttered – I feel it.
The mere idea of care feels like goosebumps. ASMR videos perform this distillation – of literal, physical touch into the quality of being touched, the remembrance of touch. Some intuitive, mnemonic function of the brain that still evades comprehensive scientific explanation responds to a stranger brushing their hair on-screen in a different time zone by producing corresponding chills all over the scalp. I don’t know why it happens and neither does anybody else.
In “‘It Feels Good to Be Measured’: Clinical Role-Play, Walker Percy, and the Tingles,” one of the few existing scholarly articles on ASMR, Nitin K. Ahuja summarizes the current hypotheses: (1) ASMR is an evolutionary function – an extension of grooming as an expression of care in animals, (2) ASMR is an offshoot of aesthetic sensations – those tingles aroused by art, music, performance, (3) ASMR is a form of synesthesia.
What deepens the mystery is that its effectiveness is not solely reliant on aural triggers, but on expressions of intimacy, compassionate rituals and the provocation of nostalgia as well. Having someone wash and cut your hair is a kind of compassionate ritual, elevated to meditative status in ASMR videos. Stranger care – there’s something about it that beyond the initial unfamiliarity, feels like supercharged empathy. You have no obligation to care and yet I feel cared for. Ahuja’s own theory is that ASMR is overcompensation – we’ve become hypersensitive to touch as it disappears from everyday life; our sensoria are so starved that even the suggestion of touch becomes electrifying. Physical presence no longer required.
In a well-known scientific experiment, participants watch as both a rubber hand that rests in front of them and their real hand are stroked or stimulated in tandem. Bewilderingly, participants report perceiving feeling in the rubber hand. Be my rubber hand so that I can feel the patterns that you trace across your skin and sense as my own the subtle gradations of pressure on your body.
Flesh, rock, paint, (nail) varnish, light, smoke, pigment – the boundaries between these substances are blending, just as the boundaries of my own body are giving way as sensations are provoked remotely. These ASMR abstractions pluck the same visceral chords as their YouTube counterparts. In Weitz's Net Search, skin has a sheen to it; it’s glowing, healthy, lush, earthly and able to glide across surfaces, lubricating embraces. Maybe wetness signals the most dramatically intimate and bodily facets of human life – birth, sex – so its presence warms the viewer to the potential of closeness. Wetness also flattens the relation between surfaces when everything is dripping – what is touching and what is being touched?
A common ASMR video request is for the subject to perform soothing hand motions tailored to activate the tingles. Sometimes these videos are silent – purely gestural. Massaging ghosts and cradling invisible lovers is sensual surrogacy. It feels just as good as it looks. Other less conventional gestures of affection, like running a length of chain through lotiony hands or tracing each crevice of a hunk of rock, intriguingly provide a similar therapeutic sensorial response. Sensing weight visually – rocks piled atop one another in a single palm – is also pacifying the way that melting under the warmth of a heavy blanket is.
In Weitz's Aftermath, an opalescent network of tubing and wiring visualizes inner psychological processes, while the wooden and rubber hands that engineer this labyrinth perform as clumsy parodies of skin and bone hands. Skulls let off steam and it seems natural. De-pressurizing: it’s a relaxing procedure. The thought of letting steam out of commonly tense areas of the body – hunched shoulders and furrowed brows – is alluring and gruesome. Like a vaporous form of bloodletting.
A kaleidoscope of illuminated foam parts mirrors Bergson’s understanding of perception as contingent on a constantly shifting set of relations. If sounds can translate into feelings, then stone can translate into flesh. Through this alchemy, inanimate busts stir with life, undercurrents of hot blood pulse just under their surfaces. These ruins vibrate with molecular energy. Simply by way of attention – close-ups and slow motion panning – statues become vessels for an inexplicable phenomenological experience. I mistake their skin as my own, and it feels blissful.
Ahuja, Nitin K. “‘It Feels Good to Be Measured’: Clinical Role-Play, Walker Percy, and the Tingles.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 56/3 (2013): 442-451.
Nancy Webb is a writer based in Montreal who experiences ASMR.