‘Whisper Porn’ Has Apparently Stopped Working for Some People

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Photo: Bobbieo/Getty Images

A few years ago, reports started to surface about ASMR, a handy acronym for the rather unwieldy “autonomous sensory meridian response.” Put in plainer terms, it’s the tingly, shivery feeling some people get when listening to a curious subset of sounds: crinkling wrapping paper, folding towels, whispering voices, or “that tender yet gravelly way your hair sounds when it’s being brushed.”

Some call it “whisper porn”; a 2014 Today show segment arrived at the slightly less elegant “Tingleheads” to describe ASMR enthusiasts. But as more people began talking about their experiences with the sensation, a funny thing began to happen: For some, the euphoric sensation has diminished, or even stopped altogether. Anecdotal reports of so-called “ASMR immunity” abound, but so far, no one is quite sure what can explain the disappearance.

One vague theory, put forth in a post over the weekend on Nautilus, is that perhaps there is something about considering the prickliness too directly that causes it to slip away. People who have reported “immunity” often say that the feeling “seemed to ebb away when they turned their gaze toward it and, in the context of an online community, began to consider the feeling more deliberately,” writer Nitin K. Ahuja observes. It’s similar to what psychologist Nick J. Davis — a co-author on one of the few published papers on ASMR — told Science of Us last year. Don’t overthink it, Davis told reporter Rebecca Milzoff, explaining that a friend of his had noticed that “the more she studies ASMR, the less she feels it.”

This is not yet a completely satisfying explanation, likely because ASMR itself is still not very well understood. Perhaps it is true, and ASMR is best looked at sideways rather than straightforwardly, but — why? It may be, Ahuja muses, yet another example of humanity’s reliable ability to get used to things. Your brain and body adapt to things like happiness or coffee — or, on a more serious note, to substances like drugs and alcohol — requiring over time more of the stuff to produce the same high that once came from a much smaller hit. For ASMR in particular, it may be that something that was once experienced rarely is now available any time of day or night, as long as you have an internet connection. Consider the way one anonymous commenter phrased it:

I am afraid that between being too aware of my unnamed feeling and listening to too many whisper vids, I am getting over saturated and have not felt it in months. :( I think I need to get back to real life exposures….

With coffee, as my colleague Cari Romm explained earlier this year, the only way to reset your caffeine tolerance is to temporarily quit caffeine. This, incidentally, is the same advice ASMR immunity sufferers give each other: Give it up cold turkey for a time, and the feeling should return. Though even this strategy doesn’t always work. “I often read some of the stories of people on the Facebook Group,” one blogger writes, “where they claim that they go as long as years at a time between events!”