Something on early morning Radio Four this week sent me hurrying to the files of autobiographical notes I’ve been writing sporadically over the last few years. It was a discussion of an experience I have never heard spoken of, but felt often enough. It has a name these days: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30412358. I’ll put down my memories as I recall them but also with some of the surrounding context too as that may be relevant to the phenomenon itself:
In the 1960s, in my second year at Parochial Junior School (I’m about 9 years old), we crocodile out the front door and occasionally turn right along Church Street towards St James’ Parish Church, Trowbridge (George Crabbe’s last posting). We cross the road for religious services like Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas. We wheel and snake into the churchyard and follow the tilting, worn flagstone path, passing Thomas Helliker’s casket tomb to the church porch.
But more usually we turn left along Church Street, passing Shanley’s the barbers and a low butcher’s window where our regimented pairings are disturbed by squeals and extraneous movement, by our fascination with red and pink slabs and cuts of meat, with creamy fat like curds laid out on plastic white trays. Most fascinating and least attractive are the lolling ox tongues, cut at the root, purple, stilled, obscene.
Then we turn left into Duke Street and left again through an almost hidden door that, even then, I would associate with those obscured entrances and exits in children’s stories. Through this door, we traipse down a passage into what we call Emmanuel, a kind of annex with a couple of extra classrooms. I don’t remember any separate play area. It’s in these classrooms that I remember adjusting to new spectacles from Carter and Harding after I had been diagnosed with short sight. I was straining to read the teacher’s scrawl on the blackboard.
Here too I remember the first incidents (though surely these could not have been the first) of a very peculiar sensation. It’s a prickling that runs up my back and shoulders, a sort of shiver moving upwards across my neck into my scalp when a teacher (not my usual one) writes on the blackboard. It’s a ripple of pleasure out of unfamiliarity (or the familiar defamiliarised), a kind of low level erotic shiver I still occasionally feel now when the college cleaner comes into my room – moving books, touching the table and chairs, my familiar items touched by another’s hand. I’ve never heard this described before . . .
Later, back in the main school building, moving to other rooms downstairs aware of girls talking, manoeuvring to walk alongside me, giggles, but I have no recognition of what this means, certainly no idea that it might be exploited. In fact, I don’t recall much sense of my own position in this little closed society at all. It is as if I moved through a mist of my own creating, barely self-aware. But I imagine myself proceeding quietly, studiously mostly, probably a pleasure to teach, though reports are already lamenting how deeply I live in myself. Already teachers are reaching for the old metaphor of the shell, the frustrating creature living within.
Wikipedia describes ASMR as a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_sensory_meridian_response
It has become a recent internet phenomenon. Online discussion groups such as the Society of Sensationalists formed in 2008 on Yahoo! and The Unnamed Feeling blog created in 2010 by Andrew MacMuiris aim to provide a community for learning more about the sensation by sharing ideas and personal experiences. Some earlier names for ASMR in these discussion groups included attention induced head orgasm, attention induced euphoria, and attention induced observant euphoria.
Inevitably my own thoughts about it revolve around poetry and its effects: the familiar defamiliarised, the frisson of the uncanny, Emily Dickinson talking about poems taking the top of your head off. ASMR seems linked to a particular quality of attention-giving which yields a rippling of pleasure, close to the erotic, but not the same as that. It is powerful yet undramatic; it is most common in quiet moments of observation. It is also in a neutral sense ‘bestial’, an animal shiver, like hackles rising, but not out of anger. It’s surely something reaching far back into our ancient past, linking body and mind, yielding pleasure, rooted in a mode of being predating language and conceptualisation. That interests me. Poetry is language deployed to circumvent the limits of language; these days I take that as a given. Yves Bonnefoy says: “poetry was not made to mean but to restore words to their full intensity, their integral capacity to designate fundamental things in our relationships with ourselves and others, here and now, amid those chances that one should never, as Mallarmé did, dream of abolishing” (2012 PN Review interview with Chris Miller: http://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=8484). Even if just considered as metaphor, perhaps ASMR is what poetry taps into, invokes, rehearses, re-discovers.