Careful Whisper: On Sports and Scalp Tingles

Science has a name for the strange tingly sensation you got while teachers told stories in school. As it turns out, sports has a strange capacity for delivering that sensation.
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This video of NHL Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine getting a cranial nerve examination isn’t, in and of itself, especially notable.

In fact, at first blush, it would seem one of the most boring YouTube clips imaginable, which is saying quite a bit, and something too esoteric for even the most ardent LaFontaine completist. To watch is to be a milquetoast fly on a thoroughly beige wall, even if the patient in this case has the highest-ever points-per-game career average (1.17) and total points in a season tally (148) for an American-born player. To make matters even more soporific, LaFontaine’s not even getting an actual cranial nerve examination; this video is merely a demonstration of what a real cranial nerve exam would be like.

This would seem to be the moment to mention that it has over a half a million views.

Granted, there a select few out there whose love for LaFontaine is such that they’ll watch anything he’s a part of. But LaFontaine isn’t the star here. It’s Dr. James Kelly. And it’s precisely because Kelly speaks so remarkably unremarkable that he’s got his own fans in the burgeoning ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) community. That community accounts for those views. For starters. To better grasp ASMR, however, we must slow things down for a minute. Literally.


ASMR, according to Wikipedia, "is a neologism for a recently-described perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli.” It’s based upon the idea that exposure to certain (usually soft, repetitive, and/or detailed) sounds and visuals can initiate a euphoric feeling in your noggin that, for many, manifests as a cascade of warm tingles. It’s estimated that a quarter to a third of humankind can or have felt the sensation. (I am one; like many folks, re-runs of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross and teachers speaking in a monotone under the low crackle of fluorescent lighting first triggered it for me).

Enjoy the eloquently enunciated interviews of the type common to NPR* and PBS? Enjoy Nicholson Baker’s ruminations on everyday items? You probably have ASMR and don’t even know it yet.  It’s not something especially easy to admit to -- someone bursting in the room while you’re enjoying some good old-fashioned tentacle porn might be easier to explain than this -- but it’s a very real thing, albeit probably only to those for whom it’s real. While a fair number of folks in the medical community believe ASMR to be a quantifiable experience, research into ASMR is still in its nascent stages, though studies are beginning.

The ASMR roleplay videos on YouTube run the gamut: There are roleplays of folks selling makeup, giving an eyeglass fitting, baking cakes, gardening, soldering, practicing calligraphy, doing beer tastings, and even acting as, should you need one, an outer space travel agent. To date, however, sports appear to be woefully underrepresented in the thousands of ASMR vids out there, despite being an activity that many people either actively participate in or watch on a regular basis.

But: which sports, and/or what activities within those sports, lend themselves best to ASMR? Baseball would seem to be an obvious choice -- the low warm hum of the game; the casual, repetitive manner inherent in the game’s movement; the specialization of its players and positions -- but other hypno-sports, especially soccer, might also be a good fit. Archery, maybe, or darts, games (okay, sports) which are predicated on lulling precision and the repetitive witness of savant-like singular physical activity would also seem to fit the description.

However, where to find them? The best ASMR videos, as the LaFontaine clip shows, are often the most esoteric, which is to say not easily searched for, even when you attach “ASMR” to your search, which will bring up some 3,000,000 videos as of press time. How else to explain some dude explicating how to nail-drag an infield while the Bee Gees’ “More Than A Woman” inexplicably plays in the background? Or Some dude cleaning his baseball glove? Or some British kid extolling the merits of his new AND1 (“unnnhd-one” here) basketball?

Football would seem to be the logical antithesis of ASMR (loud, quick, violent), but this guy, with a green file folder and a permanent marker, gives it a shot. Conversely, golf would seem to be a natural: the hush and lushness of the fairways, the careful consideration before playing a lie, the pleasant thwack of a well-played shot -- hell, the fact that announcers say intrinsically repetitive claptrap like “that’s a nice golf shot” as if we’d forgotten what sport we are viewing -- all of that, with the exception of the GETINTHEHOLEYOUTHEMANbros, would seem to recommend it, but there’s little evidence of this evidently untapped market. All that seems to exist is this underlit, Blair Witch-y take on a guy rubbing his old steel-shafted Ben Hogans, which is the very creepy definition of Another Story Entirely.

Which is where our effort to connect the world of sports and ASMR becomes tougher. Everyone who’ll admit to having -- if that’s even the appropriate term, because experiencing? -- ASMR is triggered by different things, be they crinkly noises, certain accents, various situations, or broader and difficult-to-define vibes. A majority of folks, if YouTube is any indication, like to see/hear someone gently whispering instruction and/or delivering caring expertise. However, one rarely knows what sort of videos might birth the sensation. It stands to reason that sports would be a healthy part of this. And yet.


And yet, sports doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction in the ever-popular “role play” subsection of the ASMR community. But it would seem the possibilities could be endless. The crinkle of someone opening a bag of salted peanuts at a baseball game and keeping a scorecard = ASMRtist gold.

But why stop there? Why not some dude pretending to be the head ball coach of the New York Jets? Maybe the sneaker-squeak and repetitive thump of basketball drills narrated by a faux-coach or player would serve up the silly seizures just as effectively. (Or a press conference? Guy could do something like say “practice” over and over...)

As a tingle-head myself, I think I could go for 45 minutes or so of someone breaking down the various Sabermetric issues facing sports today. In fact, I know that to be the case. This inadvertant ASMRtwork by Kevin Goldstein and Christina Kahrl provided that sensation for me before I ever even knew what ASMR was, or if anybody else -- or everybody else -- had the same sort of reaction. A similar video on the site is instructive in that it’s everything you don’t want in an ASMR clip -- nervousness, loud banging noises and distracting fast actions and speech. Then again, that’s just Will Leitch.

Hockey, of course, has already holed out, cinched the clubhouse lead, signed the scorecard and invited the trophy wife over for a post-round, pre-trophy-hoisting buss (or butt-pat and can of Copenhagen, depending on your tastes) thanks almost solely to the LaFontaine clip mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

Its popularity is perhaps best aligned with sports in an analogous sense. It’s everything we don’t want from our sporting events (the monotony and borderline banality) and perhaps everything we do -- relaxation, the chance to observe specific expertise, reassurance, a sense of community, and perhaps most importantly, a good firm backpat of comfort -- all at the same time.

Conversely, it’s almost a template for what people say they look for in an ASMR video: it’s packed with seeming expertise, slow and deliberate, voiced in mellow, concerned tones, and it’s just, for lack of a better term, monotonous enough to set the brain ablaze. And yes, it’s ultimately still some dude talking to his damn doctor and getting his knees knocked with a reflex hammer.

Point is, you never really know when something is going to move you until it does, and you can never plan on being moved or you never will be -- in sports as in ASMR as in life. In order for things to transport us -- whether via a dunk or sliding catch or wickedly-whispered sushi-wrapping demonstration -- we must first leave room for surprises (“keeping an open mind,” folks call it) and suspend our beliefs (and our disbelief, which may be even harder). Granted, in the 24-hour, 140-character news cycle of sports circa 2013, this isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

But maybe, just once, the next time someone complains that last night’s game “put him to sleep,” think of it as less of a warning and more of a tip that it might be time to torrent. Sometimes one person’s trite is another’s tingles.

* This broadcast of This American Life -- “A Tribe Called Rest” -- is generally considered the first broadcast media mention of ASMR. As such, it was the intro point into the community for tens of thousands.

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