BreakPoint: Simulated sensations cannot replace human presence

If by pressing a button you could get the same sensation as the most pleasant, relaxing or enjoyable experience you've ever had, would you do it? If so, how often?

Back in the 1950s, a curious psychologist sought an answer to these questions. He installed electrodes in the pleasure centers of rats' brains and gave them a lever to zap themselves. Not only did they like it, they became addicted, pressing the lever thousands of times a day and neglecting to eat, drink or sleep until they died.

If you are tempted to reply that "rats aren't humans," consider ASMR, a new phenomenon that suggests that, if given the chance, human beings will readily seek out the tingles in lieu of real-life experiences.

A recent article by Sam Kriss in The Spectator explains ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. It's a sort of pleasant tingle or warmth many people say they experience when they hear certain sounds or watch someone manipulate the right object. For example, an exhibit at London's Design Museum invites guests to snuggle into a giant, brain-shaped pillow, don a pair of headphones and watch strangely simple yet satisfying videos, like a "softly spoken Scandinavian man gently fingering some bed linens." This, evidently, gives some people the tingles.

Other common ASMR triggers include "whispering, quiet voices, tapping or clicking, the sound of someone slowly chopping vegetables or softly stroking your face." According to Kriss, an entire industry of self-proclaimed "ASMRtists" are exploding onto the online scene, and some are getting quite rich triggering oddly pleasant sensations. The most popular hosts on YouTube boast millions of subscribers. Most are young women who brush their lips or fingertips against microphones and whisper kind, affirming words. They pretend to ask you about your day or your feelings. They give you an imaginary face massage or cut your hair or just play with household objects close to the camera.

According to Kriss, the tingles don't necessarily result from the noise, nor are they overtly sexual. Rather, the presence (or simulated presence) of another person, the sounds of their movement and voice, are what "seems important." ASMR requires an "emotional element," which leaves the viewer feeling "safe and warm and loved."

Kriss believes that there is something deeply dystopian about "untold millions of people who spend a good chunk of their free time every day sitting by themselves in a dark room in front of a screen, blissing out to a series of clicking sounds ... [or to] someone who does not know your name and who would not notice if you died tomorrow, pretending to nurture you. This could only exist in a deeply lonely, deeply broken world."

He's certainly correct in saying that for many this is "a deeply lonely, deeply broken world." According to one post-pandemic survey, more than half of American adults say they're lonely. The popularity of ASMR suggests that our particular brand of loneliness reaches into the primal parts of our being. The roles ASMRtists often play on camera are of mothers or our closest friends.

Yet the tingles people seek in ASMR are no more of a solution for this loneliness than the electrodes in the rats' brains were a solution for hunger. This growing trend is an attempt to trigger sensations associated with physical embodiment and human relationships without the embodiment or the relationships. But this is not how humans were made.

Contrary to all the gnostic tendencies and assumptions of our age, we are embodied beings. We cannot bypass the physical aspect of ourselves without doing damage to our personal and collective humanity. God made us for relationship. He gave us bodies to mediate and facilitate those relationships. As helpful as computers and phones are, there is no substitute for real people.

Attempts to bypass the need for human presence and to receive pleasure at the press of a button may seem to work for a moment. They may even earn millions of YouTube subscribers. However, in the end, we will be left lonelier than we were when we found them appealing in the first place.

That should probably trigger chills, not tingles.

From BreakPoint, Jan. 5, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.