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Colors, Sounds, Tingles

North Dakota artist Kat Smith helps explain ASMR.

Kat Smith is a creative whose senses pulse with color, shape, and waves of tingles in response to music and some touch.

Courtesy Kat Smith
Source: Courtesy Kat Smith

She is a synesthete and also experiences Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which includes tingles, chills, and/or waves in the head, neck, spine, and throughout the rest of the body. The psychological responses are usually feelings of euphoria, happiness, comfort, calmness, peacefulness, relaxation, restfulness, and/or sleepiness. The most common types of stimuli are visual, auditory or tactile, and they can be live or recorded.

"My experience with ASMR started more when I discovered bands that made me feel happy and make my skin get 'goosebumps' even if I wasn't scared," explains Kat, who lives between North Dakota and Minnesota. "These bands include Nothing More, Stitched Up Heart, This Will Destroy You, Gemini Syndrome, Destiny Potato, Crosses (Chino Marino from Deftones), Tori Amos, and sometimes it's purely random from the music perspective. It actually shows up in my paintings as silver sparkles. I also get the feeling when I get back scratches."

Fractal, "Melora Creager," courtesy Kat Smith
Source: Fractal, "Melora Creager," courtesy Kat Smith

Kat, who is 35, has a bachelor of science degree in Business Administration Management and has taken graduate courses in Education as Curriculum and Instruction. She also bakes and knits the most beautiful socks I've ever seen (look for her Etsy shop soon!) and is an integral caretaker of three generations in her family.

She says it's actually hard to pinpoint which part of a song sets it off. "With the bands Nothing More, Stitched Up Heart, This Will Destroy You, Jakob, it's all their songs. Sometimes it starts on my legs and moves up over my body. Other times it starts on my arms. It can last for an entire concert, with breaks between the songs. The emotion part is a 'low-grade euphoria', it makes me happy at the end of everything. Like when I saw This Will Destroy You live last year, I wasn't feeling the greatest as I had to drive through gross crunchy snow to get to the show. Yet, after the show, I was happier than before. This is something to watch in person, it's hard to describe in word."

A lot of people with synesthesia report ASMR as well. Kat's synesthesia includes colored hearing with sounds as shapes; sounds as taste (sporadically); letters/numbers as color; pain as color; sound as pain (sporadic); sound as emotion and skin tingles; touch as emotion and skin tingles. "The last two are the ASMR ones," Kat explains.

Fractal "Maria Brink," courtesy Kat Smith
Source: Fractal "Maria Brink," courtesy Kat Smith

She finds all of these sensory experiences useful in her art. "It can definitely help me create. It helped me when I would choose colors to put into my fractals that I created on the computer and when I painted on canvas. I would definitely want to dye yarn according to the colors I have heard. Something is sitting in my Amazon cart waiting for me to buy it to start that."

The stimuli and reactions are myriad in both traits. Kat believes they are related, and she's not alone.

Top synesthesia researchers like Tony Ro, Ph.D., who heads the Ro Lab of the City University of New York, have been paying attention to lots of anecdotal reports of synesthetes with the ASMR experience. He was recently featured discussing such connections with Smithsonian Magazine. (More of his research can be found here.) I ran Kat's experiences past him recently and he found them very interesting.

Fractal "Stardust," courtesy Kat Smith
Source: Fractal "Stardust," courtesy Kat Smith

"This does seem like anecdotal evidence for an apparent link between the two experiences and may reflect the same underlying neural mechanisms. For example, Kat may have more cross-talk between the auditory regions of her brain with the somatosensory and visual regions, resulting in both feeling sensations of tingling and seeing colored shapes," Ro says.

Kat finds a lot of community on a Facebook page in support of those with ASMR. There are thousands of members.

"Any other expressions on my synesthesia or the ASMR is that I wish that my other friends that do not have synesthesia could experience it along with me," she says.

There are many videos on YouTube of "ASMR Artists" who attempt to coax these reactions out of viewers using whispery voices, simulated touch, and even hairbrushes. Kat prefers to experience her ASMR naturally.

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