Tuesday, 13 March 2012

ASMR, Sakura and Anime

I read an article at NeuroLogica this morning that sparked a small epiphany in me (you all read neuroscience blogs over breakfast too, right?).  The article is about autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). To quote the article:
"It is described as a pleasurable and calming tingling sensation in the back of the head. It is often called a brain orgasm, or braingasm (which I think is a bit misleading, since the regular kind of orgasm occurs in the brain with some peripheral manifestations). This experience can be triggered by a variety of odd sensations. The ASMR Research and Support website (you knew that had to exist) gives a list:
- Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
- Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
- Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
- Enjoying a piece of art or music
- Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner – examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
- Close, personal attention from another person
- Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back
This is a diverse list of triggers, but I can see what they all have in common. They all seem to engage the same networks of the brain – that part of us that interacts carefully and thoughtfully with our environment or with other people.  There is something calmly satisfying about such things."

I have had that feeling for my entire life, but I assumed that it was one of my oddities and that no one else experienced it. In case you are wondering what any of this has to do with Japan, this sensation is one of the things that first attracted me to Japanese culture, but I’ll get back to that later.

The first time I clearly remember this feeling was on a summer afternoon, watching my sister draw. Golden sunlight was streaming through the window and the only sounds drifting through the viscous air were a far away lawnmower and the soft rhythmic scratching of her pencil moving across her sketch book. In the stillness her concentration was palpable but also entirely private. I felt happiness so intense that it was almost painful to breathe. That moment was so perfect and so still that I knew it could not last, and maybe no future moment would even equal its perfection. I don’t think that ASMR is inherently linked to sadness, transience or 物の哀れ (mono no aware), they just happen to coincide for me.
Sakura, spring bamboo and powerlines
Many of the things I enjoy about Japan share this mixture of still concentration and lingering sadness. Although I think rather too much is made of it, it’s widely written that sakura (cherry blossoms) are considered so beautiful because of their evanescence. If they survived for three months they would lose part of what makes them so beautiful. 物の哀れ (lit. the pathos of things) is a significant term for students of Japanese literature and it is a feature of many of my favourite Japanese films and anime.
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