What Is ASMR? Watch the The New Yorker’s Introduction to the Whispering & Crinkling Sounds That Help Calm Anxiety and Induce Euphoria

ASMR… is it a medical condition? A sexual fetish? A desire for peace and quiet coupled with an inability to turn off YouTube? Maybe all or none of the above?

Maybe you caught Act One of This American Life’s “Tribes” episode, in which novelist Andrea Seigel describes her passionate need for whispering, and finds a community of people who need the same. She discovered the “tingle” early in life, when a friend came over to inspect her shell collection, describing each item in a gentle whisper and provoking in Seigel an “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a euphoric reaction thousands crave as though it were a drug. They get their fix, as we learn in the New Yorker video above, from videos in which male and female “ASMR artists” gently handle, manipulate, and describe objects in low murmurs.

Sensual sibilance, the sounds of a brush through hair, scissors clipping, plastic quietly crinkling, tapping, spraying… all producing the same effect as Bob Ross’s happy little clouds and trees, a pioneering source of ASMR, though it had not yet been identified as such.

Many of Ross’s viewers were not, in fact, aspiring artists, but people who responded to his calming demeanor and the swishing sounds of his brush on the canvas. (Watch all episodes of his show here.) ASMR artist Maria of the YouTube channel “Gentle Whispering” is not only a purveyor of ASMR sounds, she’s also a client who herself shivers at fingertips on paper and breathy whispers. See one of her videos below (and many more here).

“No one’s been able to unravel the biochemistry or the exact physiological experience that people are having,” says Shenandoah University’s Craig Richard, an ASMR enthusiast. Oxytocin—the “love hormone”—seems to be involved, which may explain why many ASMR videos have a slightly sexy feel to them. Sensation, touch, and closeness define the genre (often hosted by young, conventionally attractive women). ASMR videos may adhere to some specific cultural constructions, but the phenomenon seems real enough. And it has a psychological nemesis, misophonia, “an extreme dislike of certain sounds,” such as just those that set ASMR folks a-tingling.

“How can a sound be so relaxing for group A,” asks Richard, “and really make group B angry?” Maybe there is a genetic component, he speculates. And maybe the popularity of ASMR videos shows a softer, G-rated side of how lonely people meet a need online. ASMR artists “tend to be people with really kind and caring dispositions,” says Richard. “You’re brought into this world and this moment with you and another person. And this person just seems to really care about you.” Role-playing plays a big role in ASMR videos, which can make them seem even more like adult movies.

But it’s not at all about sex, but about intimacy, calm, and connection, which many people understandably hunger for in a noisy, alienating world. As Richard points out, many say that ASMR videos help with anxiety and insomnia. Stressed-out students, single mothers, veterans with PTSD—all have reported finding peace through ASMR. “Our society has become quicker in every possible way,” says Maria. “Everything is pushed to the top, to the limit. ASMR slows down your perception of everything.” It’s a meditative art, she suggests, and an antidote to the brain-scrambling disorientation of contemporary life.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is Stoicism? A Short Introduction to the Ancient Philosophy That Can Help You Cope with Our Modern Times

The word “stoic” (from the Greek stoa) has come to mean a few things in popular parlance, most of them related directly to the ancient Greek, then Roman, philosophy from which the term derives. Stoic people seem unmovable. They stay cool in a crisis and “keep calm and carry on” when others lose their heads. For several, perhaps obvious, reasons, these qualities of “calm, resilience, and emotional stability” are particularly needed in a time like ours, says Alain de Botton in his School of Life video above.

But how do we acquire these qualities, according to the Stoics? And what philosophers should we consult to learn about them? One of the most prolific of Stoic philosophers, the Roman writer and statesman Seneca, advised a typical course of action. In a letter to his friend Lucilius, who feared a potentially career-ending lawsuit, Seneca counseled that rather than resting in hopes of a happy outcome, his friend should assume that the worst will come to pass, and that, no matter what, he can survive it.

The goal is not to make Debbie Downers of us all, but to convince us that we are stronger than we think—that even our worst fears needn't mean the end of the world. Seneca’s stoicism is a thoroughgoing realism that asks us to account for the entire range of possible outcomes—even the absolute worst we can imagine—rather than only those things we want or have previously experienced. In this way, we will not be caught off-guard when bad things come to pass, because we have already made a certain peace with them.

Rather than a pessimistic philosophy, Seneca’s thought seems entirely practical, a means of piercing our pleasant illusions and comfortable bubbles of self-regard, and considering ourselves just as subject to misfortune as anyone else in the world, and just as capable of enduring it as well.

To partake of Seneca’s wisdom yourself, consider reading this online three-volume collection of his letters, The Tao of Seneca. And for a longer list of Stoic thinkers, ancient and modern, see this post from Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic, a blog that offers useful Stoic advice for contemporary people.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Teaching Tolerance to Activists: A Free Course Syllabus & Anthology

The waters of academia have grown choppy of late, and many veteran sailors have found themselves ill-equipped to navigate the brave new world student activists are forging at a breakneck pace.

Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Curricula restructured with an eye toward identity. Swift judgments for those who fail to comply.

Admissions brochures and campus tours make frequent mention of their institution’s commitment to social justice. They have to—many high schoolers share the undergrads' beliefs.

Those of us whose college years are but a distant memory shouldn't depend on our school’s alumni mag to paint an accurate picture of the battles that may be raging within. Sustainability, preferred pronouns, and inclusive bathroom facilities may get a mention, but the official organ's unlikely to peek into the abyss where tolerance goes to die.

Cultural scholar Frances Lee, a queer trans person of color recovering from a forced conversion to evangelical Christianity, took a hard look at the problem of intolerance within activist circles as a second year Masters student in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington.

Published exactly one year ago, their essay, Kin Aesthetics: Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, was plainspoken about the negative side effects of social progress in activist circles, and by extension, on campus:

Telling people what to do and how to live out their lives is endemic to religious and to dogmatic activism. It’s not that my comrades are the bosses of me, but that dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do. This is especially prominent on Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed sometimes feels Iike sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon. I know that much of the media posted there means to discipline me to be a better activist and community member. But when dictates aren’t followed, a common procedure of punishment ensues. Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing. Discipline and punishment have been used for all of history to control and destroy people. Why is it being used in movements meant to liberate all of us? We all have made serious mistakes and hurt other people, intentionally or not. We get a chance to learn from them when those around us respond with kindness and patience. Where is our humility when examining the mistakes of others? Why do we position ourselves as morally superior to the lowly un-woke?

The essay’s viral success gives extra oomph to "Woker Than Thou: Leftist Activist Identity Formations," a community course Lee designed and taught earlier this year.

Intended for community leaders, political activists, and organizers, Lee welcomed anyone with any interest in the subject, provided they were willing “to stay open to dissenting or unpopular ideas for the sake of discussion, instead of foreclosing certain topics or ideas by judging them as not worthy of attention.”

The 10-week syllabus delved into such relevant topics as Call-out Culture, the False Promises of Empathy, and of course “wokeness,” a term Lee takes care to attribute to Black culture.

While not all of the required readings can be found online, Lee provides a wealth of links to those that can.

Titles include University of San Francisco Professor Rhonda Magee’s "Addressing Social Injustice with Compassion," author Andrea Smith’s "The Problem with Privilege," Trauma Stewardship Institute founder Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s TEDx Talk on systematic oppression and liberation theory.

There’s even a Sufjan Stevens song that evolved from cheap shots at skater Tonya Harding’s expense to something that considered the “wholeness of the person… with dignity and grace.”

Following Lee’s course materials seems a much more rational way to confront the current social climate than binging on confessional essays by liberal arts professors who feel hamstrung by not-unfounded fears that their students could cost them their jobs … and the good reputation required to secure another.

For further reading, Lee offers free downloads of Toward An Ethics of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility, Grace and Compassion in Movements for Justice, an anthology that “seeks to disrupt dogmatic, exclusionary activist culture with kindness and connection.”

Find Frances Lee’s "Woker Than Thou" syllabus here.

Download a PDF of the anthology Toward An Ethics of Activism here. (A screen reader accessible version is also available.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Color Film Was Designed to Take Pictures of White People, Not People of Color: The Unfortunate History of Racial Bias in Photography (1940-1990)

In the history of photography and film, getting the right image meant getting the one which conformed to prevalent ideas of humanity. This included ideas of whiteness, of what colour — what range of hue — white people wanted white people to be. 

- Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture

As the bride in the 2014 Interracial Wedding Photographer skit (see below) on her titular sketch comedy TV show, comedian Amy Schumer cast herself in a small but essential background role. She is for all practical purposes a living Shirley card, an image of a young white woman that was for years the standard photography techs used to determine “normal” skin-color balance when developing film in the lab.

The Shirley card—named for its original model, Kodak employee Shirley Page--featured a succession of young women over the years, but skin tone-wise, the resemblance was striking.

As described by Syreeta McFadden in a Buzzfeed essay that also touches on Carrie Mae Weems' 1988 four-panel portrait, Peaches, Liz, Tamika, Elaine, a color wheel meme featuring actress Lupita Nyong'o, and artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's 2013 project that trained an apartheid-era Polaroid ID2 camera and nearly 40-year-old film stock on dark-skinned South African subjects as a lens for examining racism:

She is wearing a white dress with long black gloves. A pearl bracelet adorns one of her wrists. She has auburn hair that drapes her exposed shoulders. Her eyes are blue. The background is grayish, and she is surrounded by three pillows, each in one of the primary colors we're taught in school. She wears a white dress because it reads high contrast against the gray background with her black gloves. "Color girl" is the technicians' term for her. The image is used as a metric for skin-color balance, which technicians use to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognizes as normal. But there's the rub: With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.

This explains why the portrait session McFadden’s mom set up in a shopping mall studio chain yielded results so disastrous that McFadden instinctively gravitated toward black-and-white when she started taking pictures. Grayscale did a much better job of suggesting the wide variety of multicultural skin tones than existing color film.

In her 2009 paper "Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies and Cognitive Equity," Concordia University media and communication studies professor Lorna Roth went into the chemistry of inherent, if unconscious, racial bias. The potential to recognize a spectrum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones was there, but the film companies went with emulsions that catered to the perceived needs of their target consumers, whose hides were noticeably lighter than those of black shutterbugs also seeking to document their family vacations, milestones, and celebrations.

Industry progress can be chalked up to pressure from vendors of wood furniture and chocolate, who felt their dark products could look better on film.

Oprah Winfrey and Black Entertainment Television were early adopters of cameras equipped with two computer chips, thus enabling them to accurately portray a variety of individual tones simultaneously.

Who knew that Amy Schumer sketch, below, would turn out to have such historic significance? Once you know about the Shirley card, the comedy becomes even darker. Generations of real brides and grooms, whose skin tones fell to either side of Schumer’s TV groom, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest fame, failed to show up in their own wedding photos, through no fault of their own.

via Vox

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Bill Murray Explains How He Pulled Himself Out of a Deep, Lasting Funk: He Took Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice & Listened to the Music of John Prine

Judging by the outpouring of affection in online comment sections, Chicago folk musician John Prine has helped a great many of his fans through tough times with his humanist, oft-humorous lyrics.

Add funny man Bill Murray to the list.

Taping a video in support of The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s first album of new material in over a decade, Murray recalled a grim period in which a deep funk robbed him of all enjoyment. Though he carefully stipulates that this “bummer” could not be diagnosed as clinical depression, nothing lifted his spirits, until Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson—whom Murray embodied in the 1980 film, Where the Buffalo Roam—suggested that he turn to Prine for his sense of humor.

Murray took Thompson’s advice, and gave his fellow Illinoisian's double greatest hits album, Great Days, a listen.

This could have backfired, given that Great Days contains some of Prine’s most melancholy—and memorable—songs, from "Hello in There" and "Angel from Montgomery" to "Sam Stone," voted the 8th saddest song of all time in a Rolling Stone readers' poll.

But the song that left the deepest impression on Murray is a silly country-swing number "Linda Goes to Mars," in which a clueless husband assumes his wife’s vacant expression is proof of interplanetary travel rather than disinterest.

To hear Murray tell it, as he thumbs through a copy of John Prine Beyond Words, the moment was not one of gut-busting hilarity, but rather one of self-awareness and relief, a signal that the dark clouds that had been hanging over him would disperse.

A grateful Murray’s admiration runs deep. As he told The Washington Post, when he was awarded the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, he lobbied—unsuccessfully—to get Prine flown in for the ceremony:

I thought it would have been a nice deal because John Prine can make you laugh like no else can make you laugh.

Ditto Prine’s dear friend, the late, great folk musician, Steve Goodman, the author of "The Vegetable Song," "The Lincoln Park Pirates" (about a legendary Chicago towing company), and "Go, Cubs, Go," which Murray trilled on Saturday Night Live with players Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, and David Ross shortly before the Cubbies won the 2016 World Series.

I just found out yesterday that Linda goes to Mars

Every time I sit and look at pictures of used cars

She'll turn on her radio and sit down in her chair

And look at me across the room as if I wasn't there

Oh, my stars, my Linda's gone to Mars

Well, I wish she wouldn't leave me here alone

Oh, my stars, my Linda's gone to Mars

Well, I wonder if she'd bring me something home

Something, somewhere, somehow took my Linda by the hand

And secretly decoded our sacred wedding band

For when the moon shines down upon our happy humble home

Her inner space gets tortured by some outer space unknown

Oh, my stars, my Linda's gone to Mars

Well, I wish she wouldn't leave me here alone

Oh, my stars, my Linda's gone to Mars

Well, I wonder if she'd bring me something home

Now I ain't seen no saucers 'cept the ones upon the shelf

And if I ever seen one I'd keep it to myself

For if there's life out there somewhere beyond this life on earth

Then Linda must have gone out there and got her money's worth

Oh, my stars, my Linda's gone to Mars

Well, I wish she wouldn't leave me here alone

Oh, my stars, my Linda's gone to Mars

Well, I wonder if she'd bring me something home

Yeah, I wonder if she'd bring me something home

Listen to a Great Days Spotify playlist here, though neither Open Culture, nor Bill Murray can be held accountable if you find yourself blinking back tears.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Thursday June 28 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Meryl Streep Read Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” a Poem Written After the Birth of Her Daughter

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Pregnancy and parenting are “extreme experiences that stretch our understanding,” writes Lily Gurton-Wachter at the Los Angeles Review of Books. They “push us beyond comfort or even comprehension.” Women risk their own lives to give life to a stranger, a tiny human whose future is entirely uncertain. Parents live with constant dread of all that could befall their children, an anxious state, but also a vulnerability that can make us deeply sensitive to the fragility of human life. Gurton-Wachter compares motherhood to going to war, “a profound, frightening, exhilarating, transformative experience at the boundary of life, an experience from which one comes back a different person.”

It’s a comparison Sylvia Plath would likely appreciate. With her ability to compress personal experience in collections of surprising, often violent, images, Plath expressed deep ambivalence about motherhood, undercutting a tradition of sentimental idealization, giving voice to fear, discomfort, bewilderment, and mystery.

In “Metaphors,” from 1960’s Colossus, she begins with a playful description of pregnancy as “a riddle in nine syllables.” Within a few lines she feels effaced and starts to "see herself merely as a ‘means,’” notes Shenandoah, “almost an incubator… This culminates with the last line, where she realizes that she is forever changed, irrevocably”: “Boarded the train,” she writes, “there’s no getting off.”

In 1961, after the birth of her daughter, Frieda, Plath wrote “Morning Song, which might be read as almost an extension of “Metaphors.” It is “one of her most unusual poems,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, “both paean and requiem for new motherhood—the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.” Published posthumously in Ariel, the poem addresses itself to the new arrival, in a series of stanzas that capture the awe and anxiety of those first hours after her birth. In the audio above from the Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind event, hear Meryl Streep read the poem “with uncommon sensitivity,” Popova writes, “to the innumerable nuances it holds.” As you listen, read along below.


Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Streep's reading of Plath will be added to the poetry section of our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chris Cornell’s Daughter Pays Tribute to Her Father, Singing an Achingly Pretty Cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Just a little more than a year after Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell took his own life, his daughter Toni, only 13 years old, released an achingly beautiful tribute to her father. Recorded for Father's Day, she sings a poignant version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," a song her father also performed live on many occasions. Indeed you can hear his voice on this track too. It's a duet of sorts.

Released on YouTube, the song came accompanied by this short letter:

Daddy, I love you and miss you so much. You were the best father anyone could ask for. Our relationship was so special, and you were always there for me. You gave me courage when I didn’t have any. You believed in me when I didn’t. I miss your love everyday. Recording this song with you was a special and amazing experience I wish I could repeat 100 times over and I know you would too. Happy Father’s Day daddy, nothing compares to you. - Toni

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