Why do fingernails scratching against a chalkboard cause most people to wince, or even feel a tickle down their spine? Curious about this phenomenon, D. Lynn Halpern (of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, Brandeis University, and Northwestern University), Randolph Blake (of Vanderbilt University, and Northwestern University), and James Hillenbrand (of Western Michigan University, and Northwestern University), decided to conduct a little study around this acoustically activated corporeal phenomenon. In a 1986 co-authored paper published in the journal Perception & Psychophysics, the scientists described an experiment. They recorded a three-pronged garden tool scraping over a chalkboard, and later manipulated the file to create a library in which isolated high, mid, and low frequency sounds were featured on independent tracks. Turning to the human ear itself, these tracks, and others, were then played back to test subjects who would rate the relative level of adversity found in each recording. After extensive trials, the mid range frequencies proved to be the psycho-sensorial culprits, but why?
Normally, these middle frequencies are quite similar to human vocalization. However, talking doesn’t usually come off as something unfavorable. As such, Blake thought that some other legacy might be at play here, say an older, forgotten form of speech. As it turns out, these mid-frequencies are also found in primate calls. Going on a hunch, Blake conducted some comparative animal behaviorist studies, through which he realized that the:
…sound waves associated with primate warning cries, particularly chimpanzee warning cries, are remarkably similar in appearance to the aversive, middle frequency sound waves produced by fingernails on a chalkboard. When you hear those cries, they are eerily similar to fingernails on a chalkboard.1
Blake continued that:
Our speculation was that the reason the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard have an almost universal aversive quality is that it triggers in us an unconscious, automatic reflex that we’re hearing a warning cry.2
For this insight (even though they never proved the conjecture scientifically), Blake went on to receive the 2006 Noble prize in acoustics. Novel enough to earn a Nobel, the notion that sound creates automatic sensual reflexes is something phone sex workers could have testified to long before Blake began his investigations.
Before we go further, may I first ask you a question about telecommunication in general: do people gabbing away on mobile phones annoy you? Now consider the seemingly inconsequential back and forth of small talk; ‘how’s it going,’ ‘all good,’ and so and so forth. These empty words serve not the master of linguistic content, but function like a conductor tuning the rhythms of our reciprocal speech patterns, bodily gestures, and other prompts, which when matched, elicit the miracle of focused co-concentration. When it comes to mobile phone hearsay, the queues lost by obscuring one of the partners just doesn’t leave enough information – hence your anger. In phone sex however, the convo isn’t incomplete, it’s impoverished instead. 976-FUCK: you take the suggestion that the sound of a scarf moving around one’s neck is really the sound of panties being removed; if you don’t, you can’t build any mental images.
Since many of these images are personal and specific, the media theorist and performance artist Allucquére Rosanne ‘Sandy’ Stone has instead considered what is the general nature of such prompts and how can it be utilized so as to stoke the mind of receivers. Stone writes:
…sex workers are in the business of constructing tokens that are recognized as objects of desire. Phone sex is the process of provoking, satisfying, constructing desire through a single mode of communication, the telephone. In the process, participants draw on a repertoire of cultural codes to construct a scenario that compresses large amounts of information into a very small space. The worker verbally codes for gesture, appearance, and proclivity, and expresses these as tokens, sometimes in no more than a word. The client uncompresses the tokens and constructs a dense, complex interactional image. In these interactions desire appears as a product of the tension between embodied reality and the emptiness of the token, in the forces that maintain the preexisting codes by which the token is constituted. The client mobilizes expectations and preexisting codes for body in the modalities that are not expressed in the token; that is, tokens in phone sex are purely verbal, and the client uses cues in the verbal token to construct a multimodal object of desire with attributes of visual and aural instead of purely aural to be sure, but how bodies are represented will involve how recognition works.3
The key to hacking Stone’s idea though lies in the unusual word ‘uncompresses’. Writing back in the 1990s, Stone was testing how different forms of desire (and other emotions) are achieved through various performances and what kinds of audience relations these varying formats foster and curtail. Not limiting herself to the live / virtual divide discussed in various ‘new media’ debates, Stone turned instead to another register, the telephone, which she determined as inhabiting a ‘low bandwidth’ signal. In the case of the phone (a media that limits sight, touch, smell, etc., and as such cannot be considering anything analogous to the multi-sensory experience that is sex), the power of the ‘token’ must be intensified. Here:
The communication bandwidth between client and provider is further narrowed because the voices are passed through the telephone network, which not only reduces the audio bandwidth but also introduces fairly high levels of distortion. In my studies of phone sex, I was particularly interested in how distortion and bandwidth affected the construction of desire and erotics. Narrow bandwidth interactions are useful in analyzing how participants construct desire because the interactions are both real and schematized. While they cannot provide information about the vast and complex spectrum of human sexuality across time and society, they do provide a laboratory, which is large, moderately diverse, and easily accessible for a detailed study of desire in narrow-bandwidth mode.4
Keeping this laboratory of ‘fairly high levels of distortion’ in mind, let’s now consider an update: what would happen if erotic broadcasts were manipulated beyond the default settings found on each telephone and were specifically tailored so as to isolate the ‘automatic reflex’ that Blake and his team found?
Long before Blake and Stone, the German physicist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove (1803-1879) conducted a few experiments of his own to study how human perception works. Around 1839, Dove discovered binaural beats; a mental phenomenon wherein the human mind will perceive the existence of a sound that isn’t there when presented with a given tone in one ear and its near twin in another (i.e., a 300 Hz tone in the left ear and a 310 Hz tone in the right). Not to be confused with standard stereophonics (in fact, due to speaker cross over, this effect is best achieved with headphones), this 3rd tone, which generally manifests as the difference between the two real sounds, inserts and ‘mixes’ a pulse into the sound space in attempt to locate the possible source of the strange tone in real space. The brain is sort of being tricked here, as this disparity is wholly artificial and unnatural. While scientists have still yet to figure out just what to do with these stimulating simulations, others have claimed that these beats, particularly when tuned to various brainwaves, might do everything from enhance memory and learning, to heighten physical performance, cure erectile dysfunction, help quit smoking, aid in dieting, and if properly paced, even render feelings similar to recreational drugs. Panacea or not, studio musicians have turned to similar experiments in 3-d sound.
Skewing the set-up a bit, binaural recording works toward a similar end. Instead of producing slightly different tones in each ear however, this technique implants two different recording microphones on the left and right side of a mannequin head so that the playback produces a similar mental mix as the listener tries to reconfigure an artificial, yet 3-d sonic field the off-set microphones create. Although these methods were first used to try and emulate the sound of a live concert (most notably in the in Lou Reed’s 1978 album Street Hustle), listeners reported that tracks recorded in this fashion instead produced a sort of synesthetic side-effect: a tingly head.
Now text isn’t usually the kind of thing to make ‘head bubbles’, so let’s think about something else: have you ever had a massage? If so, are you familiar with the movement wherein the masseuse quickly rakes her fingers through your hair and scratches your scalp? Pawing, clawing, scratching hands can give you the chills, but not like the sound of fingers on a chalkboard, something more euphoric and extraordinary. Or as Jennifer Allen puts it, maybe it:
feels like a simultaneous stimulation of every nerve in the ‘path’, starting from the top of my head and descending through my body down my spine and out to my limbs in rushing waves. It feels intensely pleasurable, and I often feel slight euphoria and contentment during it.5
She does have a way with words, but she isn’t talking about how tickles and other forms of touch are erogenous. She’s discussing the sensation that various sounds produce in her body. Not a simple pleasure junkie, Allen wants to know why she is experiencing such reactions.
Allen is the founder and team organizer of the ASMR Research & Support group, a blog of amateur investigators who are trying to unlock why they feel Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses (ASMR). In their lingo, ‘ASMR’ is the heuristic cover phrase for when various stimuli, usually auditory, provoke some people to figuratively get-off. For example, a whisper, the sound of fingers lightly, but quickly tapping things, or even the sound of hair swooshing. Like the fetishistic projection found in Stone’s ‘tokens’, these devices have a long history; however, unlike phone sex, which usually divides and atomizes consumers from producers, ASMR advocates have set-up various blogs, vlogs, Facebook groups, YouTube and Vimeo channels, to share their reactions and form a community. Feel free to run through any of these channels6, but it is also worth mentioning that these performances are also scripted, recorded and edited in post-production. Unlike the narrow bandwidth of the phone, these products are highly produced and enhance ‘tokens’ through the use of complex sound editing equipment not limited to binaural recording – the image quality doesn’t seem to play too much of a role, as the camera is often of a lower quality then the mic, and generally provides for a rather static framing. That said, even though the AMSR community is rather diversely populated from a gender perspective, more often than not, these packages still feature a white and young pretty girl advancing the action. Maybe men whispering is just creepy no matter what?
The matter at hand; these artifacts are always monologues, which never overtly speak of anything sexual. Narratively, some banal service industry scenario is invoked so that fake travel agents, fake hairdressers, or the like are providing the action. As such, one can speculate that there is some deeper fetishism at play here: is service and care itself that what is being erotized here? No one really knows why any of this all adds up, but the community is strong, and the videos keep coming. In any case, maybe there is something sexy in the distancing of agency?
Not all ASMR films are narrative, in fact, the Internet is awash with bracketed ‘studies’ of isolated images and sounds, which are often highly produced, if not with binaural mics, then with close recording to capture something the ear normally can’t. Think here of a tight frame featuring keys jingling in an empty and abstract background. Pseudo-science or not, the justification that users and producers (most without any accreditation in psychology or physiology) are doing this all ‘in the name of science’ adds a curious dimension. Eschewing epistemology questions, let’s ask instead: is there something erotic in mastering influencing machines? But let’s suspend the erotic nature and refine these new plays with sound further. To do so, let’s let the image drop out entirely again.
Meet I-Doser7, a proprietary website that provides ‘audio drugs’ in the form of downloadable mp3s. Tweaking the research mentioned above, these tracks layer and phase various binaural sounds to be listened to by a lone single user so as to produce various moods. While some tokens do exist (i.e. the titles of the tracks, such as ‘Marijuana’), these sounds are meant to provide for direct and implicit sensations. While tracks such as ‘Gates of Hades’ induce mental and visceral responses (not limited to minor seizure like effects), the aim is focused more on altered states than erotica.
If you couldn’t tell by the name, I-Doser functions like a dealer: the first 6-tastes are free, but then you have to pay. While one might laugh at the lighthearted community of perverts that trade ASMR files to each other, one has to ask: In which direction will all of this research go?
In the case of the rarefied industry of bonafide psychoacoustics, science here has also been turned to the nefarious weapons industry in the form of psych-ops sound cannons and the like, not to mention older attempts to use sound as a form of subliminal advertising. ASMR and I-Doser have yet to be fine-tuned, but one wonders what the futures of each might hold. While these somatic processes and the reasons for such will probably never be distilled, it is still fascinating to see that two trajectories are already in play; the first as an artifact of a lively community focused on care and service, and the second as a product to be sold by pushers… let’s just hope that the former isn’t pimped by the later.
3. Allucquére Rosanne Stone. ‘Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?’. In Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. Michael Benedikt. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991): 81-118.
4. Allucquére Rosanne Stone. The War Of Desire and Technology at the Close. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996): 94.
5. See: www.jallen.asmr-research.org
6. See for one of many examples: page www.reddit.com/r/asmr/top