Last weekend, I let a stranger brush my hair and stroke my ears with a Q-tip to help manage my anxiety. I was at Whisperlodge, a 90-minute immersive performance slash spa that offers only one kind of treatment: ASMR.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is the pleasant tingling feeling in your spine when you experience certain sounds, personal attention, and visual cues. Crinkling paper, the pronunciation of whispers and even dragging a hairbrush on your skin are all ways that you can trigger it. “It’s similar to goosebumps but it’s more focused in your head,” said Melinda Lauw, the co-founder of Whisperlodge. “Everyone experiences it differently.”
The benefit of experiencing ASMR, described by many as “braingasms”, is that it can relieve stress and increase well-being. A 2015 Swansea University study on 500 ASMR fans, the first ever conducted on the subject, revealed that it can even temporarily improve symptoms of depression and chronic pain. Although I wasn’t sure it would work on me, I did know that this video of a woman eating a pickle made my spine tingle. I had hope.
Melinda greeted me in a white lab coat and led me inside the Brooklyn apartment where she was treating guests for the next 4 days. Inside, two other guides prepared coffee and cleaned their rooms. They were completely sold out of sessions for the weekend, but Melinda agreed to treat me on the spot.
The Sound Bath:
I was alone, but Whisperlodge starts with four guests lying on mats in the living room. The guides ring a huge crystal bowl, rolls marbles on the floor and pluck at tennis racket strings. All of the sounds were really satisfying. No goosebumps yet.
Then it’s the “back-brushing scene.” “One of our guides kneels down on the floor, removes her shirt and two other guides brush her back gently, symmetrically, and it’s all cued with music,” said Melinda. While some argue that certain ASMR triggers have a sexual undertone, the same Swansea University study revealed that only 5% of people use it for sexual stimulation. I was told I wouldn’t get to experience the scene because the other guides weren’t ready. I imagined myself watching them and laughing uncomfortably due to my severe awkwardness. I was relieved.
After the sound bath, guests have the choice of 3 out of 4 treatments; the clinic, hair brushing, the boudoir, and the office. I didn’t think charcoal drawing would do it for me, so I passed on the office and went with the first three.
Melinda lead me into a pseudo doctor’s office. “Now you’ll receive a physical examination,” she whispered. She slapped on blue surgical gloves. “This is a new pack,” she said, holding up a container of Q-tips. “Notice how they all fit in the package just right.”
Satisfying-looking packaging is another common trigger of ASMR, and cotton is a favorite material because of its sound and consistency. I agreed that it looks nice, but I wasn’t feeling particularly relaxed.
That’s when the session took a serious turn. She began poking my ears and tracing my earlobes with the Q-tips, saying soft and complimentary comments like “your ears are symmetrical” and “long earlobes are healthy earlobes.” My spine and neck started tingling. It was happening.
She told me she still sensed quite a bit of anxiety in me and asked me to lie down on the massage table. That’s when she starting moving a vibrating object above my head and around my ears. I went against her demands and opened my eyes, disturbing my state of calm. It was an electric toothbrush without a head. “We use really ordinary objects that aren’t always super nice to look at, but it’s all about small sounds, small gestures, and small feelings,” said Melinda, when I started to laugh. “You’re either focusing on one person or one object, or one sensation.”
Melinda brought me into the kitchen and introduced me to Alice Vook, the hair brushing guide.
First, she introduces you to the wooden hairbrush and its sounds (modeled after the one used by ASMR-famous Youtuber Maria Gentle Whispering), by tapping the back and scratching the bristles. “I tell people a story about my mother, how when I was a kid my mother used to brush my hair,” she said. “I play around with the brush on my skin and on my hair, then I just very gently brush their hair and tell them all kinds of things that their mother would tell them.” This creates a sense of intimacy and personal attention, another kind of trigger.
Alice took a phone call so Melinda agreed to brush my hair. This time she whispered compliments about its color and softness. She eventually ditched the brush and used her fingers, tracing my hairline and pulling at strands. Her affection came off as genuine, and it honestly felt pretty good to be lovingly touched without any sexual pressure. I was becoming a believer.
Pamela Martinez, the owner of the apartment, led me into her room and told me to sit on her bed. There were Christmas lights on the wall and harps on either side of the room. “I’m going to begin by offering you a choice,” she said, showing me a silver tray filled with makeup brushes. “Pick one.”
Pamela then lightly brushed my palms and fingertips, tracing my hand and offering me more whispered encouragement. “I like to imagine that with each brush I bring your inner beauty closer to the surface,” she said. She then brushed started to brush my face. “As we explore the sounds and the feelings of this brush, I want you to remember that it’s the brush you chose and it’s special because you chose it,” she said. “It is your desire that led you to it, and I like to think of brushing your face as a way of helping you clear your desires.”
ASMR is triggered through light sensations, which forces people to concentrate on tiny feelings in very specific areas of the body. “It’s all about small details, small feelings,” she whispered, “slowing your time down so that you can appreciate and enjoy details.” Once I eventually let go of the fact that a complete stranger was touching me so gently, I felt a light vibration throughout my body that was almost meditative. By the time I finally started getting over my anxieties with random people touching me and started to relax, the session was over.
Melinda escorted me to the front door, telling me that guides usually keep their guests blindfolded until the very end and leave them outside without saying goodbye. “We don’t want to have to break into small talk and go back into normal life again,” she said.
She guided me down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. The trucks on the overpass nearby were louder than usual and the sun burned my eyes. It felt like I pressed a reset button for my senses. I turned around to tell her how good I felt but she had already shut the door.
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