Virtual Techniques of Ecstasy: ASMR and Binaural Beats

What happens when spiritual or healing techniques are replaced with virtual substitutes? Some of the techniques that spiritual practitioners and traditional healers use for working with sound are thriving in virtual environments, as can be observed in the increasingly popular world of binaural beats and ASMR.

Did you know that there are videos of virtual haircuts on YouTube? And there’s even money to be made by making such videos? I was surprised to discover that there is a whole community of people posting and watching those videos along with other kinds of virtual role-play. If you don’t want a haircut, maybe you’d like to feel like you’re visiting a librarian, getting a massage, going to a doctor’s appointment, or relaxing with a caring friend. I was initially critical of the seeming futility of watching a video of someone pretending to cut my hair or check out my library books, but after watching for myself, I noticed something deeper going on, something that sounds sacred.

Many role-play videos have titles or tags indicating their orientation toward the stimulation of an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). It turns out that virtual haircut videos are the role-playing tip of the ASMR iceberg. ASMR can be described succinctly as the pleasurable feeling of tingles, chills, shivers, or goosebumps that some people occasionally experience (e.g., when somebody whispers in your ear, when you see a stunning landscape, when you gaze into the eyes of your beloved, or when you hear a rousing speech or inspiring song). But, there is scant research on ASMR beyond anecdotal evidence. Chills and tingles are difficult to measure, especially in a way that accounts for their psychological effects. ASMR is not unlike the feeling that accompanies the experience of divine beauty that Plato describes: before one is overtaken by awe, there is “at first a shudder” (see Plato’s Phaedrus). The feeling of a shudder is the beginning of an experience of divine beauty. Could a haircut role-play video be a manifestation of divine beauty? In any case, the tingling feeling occasioned by the former is analogous to the shudder that accompanies an experience of divinity.

Some of the people making ASMR-oriented videos explicitly draw such analogies between religious feelings and the tingling feelings elicited by their videos. For example, numerous ASMR-oriented videos adapt spiritual practices and traditional healing modalities, including guided meditations, chakra cleansings, tarot readings, smudging, transpersonal therapy, reiki, and shamanic journeys. Regardless of whether their popularization via mass media is considered “authentic” or true to tradition, these videos generate affective responses in some viewers.

Although, “viewers” is not exactly the right word.

Visual elements actually don’t play as prominent a role in these videos as sound, so perhaps it would be more accurate to call them “listeners.” This is not to say that there are no visual elements in these videos. Indeed, you have to see an ASMR-inducing haircut video to understand what it’s about. The person in a typical video – the ASMR artist or “ASMRtist” – often engages in eye gazing and the passing of hands, typically wearing role-appropriate outfits. Some videos even include visual effects and the occasional images of landscapes or cosmic vistas. Presumably, any sense stimuli can trigger the tingles of ASMR. Nonetheless, sound plays a particularly crucial role in ASMR-oriented videos.

The most popular videos focusing on ASMR are those that utilize binaural recording, which is not just about recording in stereo. Stereo recording involves left and right channels. Binaural recording creates a three-dimensional listening space by recording left and right channels while adjusting for the physical space occupied by the listener (such as the average size of a human head and the space between the ears). Binaural recording is a relatively popular feature of the music utilized by technologically-inclined practitioners of new age spirituality and holistic healing, particularly in the form of binaural beats, which are understood to have a powerful effect on the consciousness of the listener. The “beat” of a binaural beat refers to a rhythmic pulse that occurs when two nearly identical tones are played simultaneously, such as an A (440 Hz) in your right speaker and a slightly flat A (430 Hz) in your left speaker. The difference between the tones produces a beat. Tones at 440 Hz and 430 Hz would produce a 10 Hz pulse. The pulse would be called a monaural beat if it was played through a single speaker. Monaural and binaural beats are used for brainwave entrainment, also called sonic entrainment, whereby one’s brainwaves oscillate in resonance with the sounds that one hears (see the Wikipedia article on Brainwave Entrainment for references). This is where spiritual and healing potentials come in.

Different states of consciousness correspond with different brainwave states. Beta waves (12 Hz and above) accompany an alert and focused state of consciousness. Gamma wave states (around 40 Hz and up) accompany flashes of insight and problem solving. Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) are associated with increased relaxation, bodily awareness, and creativity. Theta waves (4-8 Hz) are associated with meditative states, greater relaxation, stress reduction, and even transpersonal phenomena like hypnosis, trance, REM sleep, and lucid dreaming. Delta waves (1-4 Hz) are associated with the unitive consciousness of dreamless sleep, which is not easily achievable while remaining awake.

One of the reasons that people prefer binaural beats to monaural beats is that the 3D perception of sound makes the brain more conducive to entrainment. Greater dimensional depth of listening means greater capacity for entering into healing and meditative states. Furthermore, the tingles and chills of ASMR indicate that the sounds of brainwave entrainment do not have to come in the form of binaural beats. They can also be sounds of whispering, tapping, crinkling, flipping pages, drawing, eating, hair brushing, the clicking of scissors, and much more. Anything can trigger an alteration of consciousness. The skill of the ASMRtist is not just to provide specific triggers, but also to provide a psychoacoustic milieu conducive to experiencing those triggers. What matters is not the sound itself but the sound in relationship. In other words, what matters is the intimate attunement of one’s psychological intentions (e.g., to meditate, to heal, to relax) with one’s acoustic environment. Spirit possession rituals, shamanic healing ceremonies, and ASMR videos all facilitate the construction of intimate psychoacoustic spaces, wherein one can align one’s healing and meditative intentions with a supportive sonic setting.

ASMR videos and binaural beats are virtual techniques of ecstasy, attempting to achieve the healing and transpersonal effects of spiritual practices by means of virtual media. Does their virtual status lessen their authenticity? Are the tingles that are felt by listening to ASMR videos less authentic than the shudder that the philosopher or mystic experiences in the presence of a beautiful sunset? Are binaural beats poor substitutes for being in the presence of a real drum? Maybe it depends on the context. I suppose many people would claim that virtual experiences are not inherently less effective, less authentic, or less true than relatively unmediated experiences. One could take up a relativist position, for which neither is better; they are just different. However, what if virtual experiences are actually better?

In the virtual realm, there is less of a commitment, less external pressure for the treatment to be meaningful or effective, less to believe in. You don’t have to believe a movie is real for the movie to give you chills. As the ASMRtist Heather Feather says in her sound healing and smudging video, you don’t have to believe in it for the healing to work. You only have to be as receptive or attentive as you would when watching any other video on YouTube. On one hand, that sounds like a horrible substitute for ritual transformation. On the other hand, perhaps when we are free of the injunction to believe in healing, we are more open to let healing into our lives. Free of the external pressure to perform a spiritual practice, we can undertake the practice with greater ease and equanimity. This is similar to the function of a Tibetan prayer wheel. Spinning the wheel performs the act of praying, alleviating the pressure for us to pray for ourselves.

Taking this to the extreme, we could imagine an ideal scenario in which the preacher, healer, or guru is replaced by a video and the observer too is replaced by a video. Imagine two computers facing one another, one playing a video of a virtual chakra cleansing, and the other playing a video of someone watching a video. With this virtual intimate space maintaining itself, we could get on with the work of leading healthy and spiritually fulfilling lives free of any injunction forcing us to do so. Like a Tibetan prayer wheel, the videos pray our prayers for us, so we can go about our lives. Free of any attachment to the injunction to practice compassion, we can practice compassion freely.

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