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Tingled: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao 0:00
For almost a decade, I've been trying to figure out if I experience this thing that everyone is talking about. ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is described as brain tingles accompanied by a deeply relaxing feeling. Some people get it watching YouTube videos of people tapping acrylic nails on a keyboard. Others get it listening to podcasts of whispered bedtime stories. But many folks first experience ASMR long before they have the terminology to describe it.

ASMR EM 0:35
My first experience of ASMR was when I was just a child. My aunt came to visit, and we were in my room playing with my American Girl dolls. There was a beautiful ray of sunlight shining across the room. We sat on the floor brushing one of the doll's hair. She was adjusting its clothing just so, and I could hear every sound.

xokatie 0:59
I first experienced ASMR in school. When we would be, like, taking a test or working on something at my desk and my teacher would be typing the background. I just always thought that was so soothing. And I just love the sound.

Anita Rao 1:20
That was ASMR artists Em and Katie. I'm Anita Rao, and this is Embodied, our show tackling sex, relationships and your health.

ASMR content has exploded in the past decade. It's now one of the most searched terms on YouTube. And something many folks say helped them make it through the pandemic. Not everyone experiences ASMR. But for those who do, the telltale sensations often emerge long before they have the terminology to describe them. That was the case for physiologist Craig Harris Richard.

Craig Richard 1:55
I was one of those kids who just didn't like falling asleep, didn't like going to bed at night. And my mother would try, like, singing to me. She would try reading to me. But it wasn't until she tried just lightly touching the inside of my arm, and that would just make my brain just almost pass out. And then as I got older, I would be watching Bob Ross' "Joy of Painting," and his voice and the sound of his paintbrushes on the canvas and the personal attention when he would turn and look into the camera — all of those just also turned my brain to this blissful state with these brain tingles.

Anita Rao 2:38
Craig is a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University, and the host of two ASMR podcasts, "Sleep Whispers" and "Calm History." For more than a decade, he's been looking into the science behind ASMR, including that phenomenon we've already mentioned a few times: brain tingles.

Craig Richard 3:05
Yeah, it's like sparkles. So tingles is the most common word. And others describe it as sparkles either on the scalp, they might describe it inside the brain. And it might just kind of go down their spine into the rest of their body also. So if you know what chills are, it's somewhat like that, except for chills tend to be much more on the surface, where you feel your hairs kind of raise up a bit. But these are lighter sparkles.

Anita Rao 3:45
So there are so many different kinds of ASMR triggers. You mentioned a few that have been part of your own experience. It's a combination of auditory triggers, visual and tactile. What are some of the most common ones that show up for folks? And what are the things that unite all of these different triggers?

Craig Richard 4:03
Yeah, whispering is probably the top trigger. And so there's been several research studies in which they've asked, you know, "What is your favorite trigger?" And whispering has come up as the most, which makes sense because it also conveys the most personal aspect of someone else. But other triggers are tapping sounds, crinkling sounds, light touches you mentioned, and in kinda, like, slow movements, the way someone moves in a deliberate way.

Anita Rao 4:33
So if someone gets a relaxing feeling, like I get a really relaxing feeling, even just listening to your voice right now, like I feel like you are you are ASMR. I'm feeling so relaxed, but I don't have any noticeable physical sensations or brain tingles. Is there a spectrum of responses to these kinds of triggers?

Craig Richard 4:51
Yeah, definitely. Some people do experience ASMR and some people don't. And even those that do experience it, you used the perfect word. There's a spectrum of responses. So some can feel deeply relaxed without brain tingles. And then some can have such strong brain tingles that they get overwhelmed. And I've seen it happen where someone experiences their tingles for the first time, and their eyes just go buggy. They'd be like, "What is happening to my brain?" For some people that have never experienced the tingles, it could be because they just haven't found the right trigger. But there may also be some individuals who are just unable to experience tingles. And it could be a genetic reason, or it could be something environmental or cultural, something from their youth. Maybe they didn't have the, the kind grandmother with the certain type of voice that when they got older, it was more likely to trigger it.

Anita Rao 5:52
Feeling relaxed yet? Survey data estimates that about 20% of people experience an ASMR response. And there's published research that gives us insight into why this happens. One of Craig's studies used a type of MRI machine to map activity in the brain while folks watched ASMR videos.

Craig Richard 6:15
One of the areas that we saw light up was the medial prefrontal cortex. The important thing to us about that region is it's known to be rich in oxytocin receptors, which is also known as the love hormone. And this kind of fits with what we know about ASMR. Because what normally releases oxytocin is moments of positive and personal attention, which is the core of ASMR. And then also, oxytocin is known to stimulate relaxation and comfort, which is what people feel from ASMR. So our brain scan studies support the strong possibility that oxytocin is at the center of ASMR.

Anita Rao 6:59
There have been some interesting studies also into responses in other parts of the body. And one of the things that's really interesting to me is that it's described as both kind of activating and relaxing at the same time. So your heart rate goes down, but you maybe start sweating more. Talk to me about that kind of dual response and what you make of it.

Craig Richard 7:20
Yeah, definitely, people describe it as relaxing. But there is also there's slight euphoria or excitement to it. I think what's going on there is, because you're having a positive, pleasurable moment with this deep relaxation, that there is a positive alertness associated with that. So it can help you to relax. But a lot of people have this slight euphoria. And they just stay in the moment and enjoy that positive kind of euphoric moment.

Anita Rao 7:51
I'd love to elaborate on this euphoria piece, because before the term ASMR was coined, a lot of folks were referring to it as a brain orgasm. And I want you to kind of unpack that, and some of the associations that have been made between ASMR and sexual feelings and what we know about the relationship between ASMR and sexual pleasure.

Craig Richard 8:14
Yeah, in the early days when people were first talking about the sensation that we now call ASMR — and what they commonly used was the term brain orgasm. But what's clear to us today, and even if you look back at those old discussions, is that it's not a sexual feeling. People clearly who experience ASMR say it's not the same as a real orgasm. So that term was very misleading. And that's kind of in a way why the term autonomous sensory meridian response was developed. So it didn't mislead people to think that you're going to have this orgasm like experience.

Anita Rao 8:54
So you mentioned, I mean we've been talking about this term being coined in 2010. And now this ASMR content is everywhere. It's kind of unavoidable on the internet. How did we get from a coining of a term just like 15 years ago to where we are today? Kind of brief history if you can.

Craig Richard 9:11
Right, Yeah. I think the key first point was probably in 2009, when the first ASMR video was created.

WhisperingLife ASMR YouTube Video 9:21
So I couldn't find any videos on YouTube of people whispering. So I thought I'd make a channel about whispering, so all you whisper-lovers out there can listen to me. So...

Craig Richard 9:37
And a lot of people watched that. And they said, "Hey, I want to do this also." So now there's probably about half a million individuals creating these ASMR videos. Then in 2010 it got the official name of ASMR, which is what we call it today. But then in 2015, was the first peer-reviewed published study, and what that really helped with was validation. People weren't sure, who didn't experience a ASMR, if this was real. And so when the research started in 2015 that helped with this validating feeling of, "Hey, this is something I experience. And it is real." And that led to a very fast growth rate in 2017 and 2019. And so it's continuing to grow, and probably because it is so effective for so many people.

ASMR YouTube Video 10:31
I'm making my way over towards the other side, the left side, parting. Then running the tool over the parts...

Anita Rao 10:44
If you were internet active in the early 2010s, you probably remember that huge ASMR boom, and the hype has not stopped. YouTube and TikTok are full of ASMR artists, and some of these folks are mind-bogglingly creative. YouTuber Josie B has video is like "You're a Roach and I'm Doing Your Makeup" and "Mushroom Decomposes You." Both of which slay me. I won't ignore the fact that many of these videos seem very strange upon first glance. But spend just five minutes scrolling through the comments section, and you'll see just how many people love them.

xokatie 11:24
I watch ASMR to relax or fall asleep. I feel like it really helps with my anxiety. And it just helps me calm down.

ASMR EM 11:33
I listen to ASMR now when I fall asleep at night, or in the afternoon, after a long or stressful day. It makes me feel like I'm part of a little community. It quiets my mind and gives me something to focus on so that I don't overthink things before bed. It makes me feel still and calm.

xokatie 12:05
What I think is so cool about ASMR is that it makes you kind of focus on only one thing. And it can be like a small thing. It's like a simple thing that you can focus on, like the act of just brushing hair. Or tapping on an item that feels good. I think it's like the simplicity of that action. And that's the only thing that you have to focus on. It's kind of meditative actually.

Anita Rao 12:41
That was Em and Katie, two ASMR consumers and creators who you also heard at the very beginning of this episode. There are several different categories of ASMR. Some content focuses on auditory triggers, like eating sounds, ambient sounds, tapping and scratching. Others are more visual, like someone mixing paint or slicing through a soft object. And then there's personal attention roleplay, where an ASMR artists will get up close to the camera and make it seem like they're plucking your eyebrows or shaving your beard. A subcategory of roleplay revolves around medical interactions like physicals or scalp checks. And that's what creator Semide ASMR specializes in.

Semide ASMR YouTube Video 13:27
I'm going to palpate some of your lymph nodes while we're here.

Anita Rao 13:30
Semide first learned about ASMR while working in a chiropractor's office, and soon she was deep in the content. She posted her first video in October 2019. It's 28 minutes long, and it's a first person point of view where she role plays giving the viewer an eye exam.

Semide ASMR YouTube Video 13:47
So I'm taking a look at your intake here. I see that you have a family history of glaucoma. Is that right? Okay I see, your grandmother?....

Anita Rao 14:04
I was very curious to hear the story behind this particular video.

Semide ASMR 14:09
At the time, I was studying naturopathic medicine, and I was learning specifically eye exams. And so I thought, well, this might be a good opportunity to start making ASMR and maybe my first ASMR video can be this since I have to review this content for school anyway. Why don't I set up? And at the time I was just using my iPhone camera, set it up on a tripod and I bought a secondhand Blue Yeti. Set that up, and I just did what I normally do when I'm conducting an eye exam, but towards the camera and the microphone. And then I posted it.

Anita Rao 14:42
So you posted it online. Your parents came across the video. What did they — how did they react? What were their first thoughts?

Semide ASMR 14:49
Oh yeah, yes. When they first watched the video they were actually in China at the time, I was in Canada with my sisters. And they sent me a message and they asked, "Semide, what is this video that you just posted?" And they were worried. They thought it might have been something sexual. And I had to quickly reassure them that it was definitely not that and I shared with them a few other videos that were similar on YouTube. And I explained to them this is more so for relaxation for helping people asleep. And then I think they slowly start to understand what I was doing.

Semide ASMR YouTube Video 15:30
Just take your time, take deep breaths, in and out. I want to give you a scalp check, scalp massage, take your blood pressure....

Anita Rao 15:56
So I would love for you to peel back the curtain a bit into how you create that kind of immersive 3D sound that makes it feel like you are standing right behind me. You are looking at my scalp, you're, you're in the room with me. How do you do that?

Semide ASMR 16:11
Yeah, so I try to create a very relaxing environment to start. So I often will use warm tones, put together candles, and yeah, all kinds of relaxing little touches in my environment. And then I have my model in front of me, I set up the microphone, and I turned the gain all the way up so that you can really hear everything. And yeah, I helped to relax the model, do a little bit of light touch and then and then we go on to the scalp massage and scalp check. I think a lot of it has to do with how much the microphone is picking up though. So, people are channeling and tapping into the connection that I have with the model. And so that's kind of where the — you start feeling ASMR just watching our interaction as well.

Anita Rao 17:03
Yeah, I mean, there's — we've — we were talking to Craig about the combination between kind of context and a particular trigger. Can you talk a bit about kind of the, the emotional context of this work and how you think about the design of the scenario to create that really comforting, nurturing feeling?

Semide ASMR 17:23
Yeah, so I kind of play the role as either a nurturing mother or a nurturing sister. And I think that's how my viewers also view me. They, you know, they're used to my voice, they sleep to it often. And so their nervous system is sort of connected to my voice in a way that as soon as they hear my voice, they'll feel relaxed. And then they see the interaction that I have with my model. And it's as if I'm a mother or a sister, nurturing them, grooming them, paying personal attention, you know, really being very caring. And so when they watch that interaction, they can also receive it.

Anita Rao 18:02
That caring, nurturing vibe is not just useful for folks as a sleep aid. According to data collected by Craig and fellow researchers, ASMR content can also be helpful for folks with anxiety. The next step in understanding the therapeutic potential of ASMR is for researchers to compare it to things like medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. But I want to underscore something that Craig mentioned earlier, not everyone responds to ASMR triggers. And there are some people who do respond, but instead of euphoria, they experience outrage and disgust. But why?

Craig Richard 18:38
it's not too mysterious, meaning it's easily understood if you think of food. Like, some people love raw onion. Some people hate raw onion. So it is common for people to have different responses to certain triggers. Some people can react to whisper sounds or mouth sounds with deep relaxation. And we call that ASMR. If you react with a strong negative response, it has a term and it's called misophonia. It's not clear yet why some people react one way to the same exact sound in a positive way versus a negative way. So the mystery is there. It may be due to genetics, or it could have to do with an early life experience. It's not clear why people react differently yet.

Anita Rao 19:23
Semide, in your own experience, as a creator and as someone who consumes a lot of ASMR, what have you noticed about how your triggers have evolved over time?

Semide ASMR 19:35
Yeah, it really does change depending on what my interests are. So for instance, when I was working at the chiropractic office, I really enjoyed watching chiropractic style ASMR videos. Later on when I was in naturopathic school, I enjoyed watching massages and more medical style videos. And nowadays, I enjoy watching nature-based and fantasy videos since I live out here on a farm, and I'm, I'm being very creative and imaginative. I'm sort of delving more into that. So I think it really depends on what is happening in your life and what really matches your special interests in the moment.

Anita Rao 20:16
Craig, the interesting trends that I guess I've been thinking about is how the rise in folks turning to ASMR has also paralleled all of these conversations about a loneliness epidemic and research, and how loneliness is bad for our health. I'm curious about how you see those two things interacting. Like, is internet ASMR culture helping folks cope with loneliness? Is it making people more lonely because they're listening to ASMR instead of interacting with someone in their real life? What do you think?

Craig Richard 20:43
They way I view it is, it's supplemental. So if you're having a bad day, and your best friend or your spouse isn't available to kind of cheer you up a little bit, then you can turn on an ASMR video at that moment and get into that relaxed state. So it's kind of like a multivitamin. It's sort of like a treadmill on a rainy day. It's there for you when you need it. But it's not going to result in you never going out for a real walk. It's just something that's helpful.

Anita Rao 21:17
We've been talking about ASMR content as an internet phenomenon. But a lot of folks first experiences are from in person interactions, a parent rubbing your back, a teacher reading you a story. You've written a book that actually encourages folks to think more intentionally about how to bring ASMR into their own relationships, something you call partner ASMR. Can you talk about that, and how we could invite ASMR more into our real life interactions, if it's something pleasurable for us?

Craig Richard 21:44
Yeah, anyone that's a parent is already doing this naturally, which is, when you soothe your newborn or your young child by lowering the volume of your voice, by speaking more slowly, by showing caring expressions from your face. That's — I mean, we're calling that ASMR triggers, but it's existed since the dawn of humans. So part of ASMR, it's about doing that more intentionally. About having awareness of that the next time your child is is hurt and needs comforting, is to use all that to help them feel better. And then also friends can do it after a hard day at school, or spouses, after a hard day at work, can use this. Or these spas that are starting to open up in which they're using ASMR triggers in these spas, which help people to relax. And then the, kind of the highest level of this partner ASMR concept is purposely using it for relaxation therapy. Which is you may have high blood pressure, and your health professional says "Well, what we're going to try first is some lifestyle changes. And also I want you to go see this ASMR practitioner to help you lower your blood pressure." So there's things like that of doing this in real life, intentional ASMR, to help people

Anita Rao 23:13
Semide, I'd love to close with you asking about this ASMR relationship piece. You have your parents in some of your videos. There's a video of you sitting with your dad, giving him kind of a mock exam. I'm curious about how ASMR and doing this work has shaped your real life relationships like that one?

Semide ASMR 23:33
Yeah, whenever I have an opportunity to, to work with my family with ASMR videos, mostly, yeah, my dad and my sisters, I find it really helps to bond us more. Because I feel really well-supported when they participate in my videos. And they also really enjoy it. My dad loves ear exams and ear cleanings and he'll actually request those. Whereas my sisters enjoy scalp checks, massages and back massages as well. And so, yeah. Those are definitely ways that we bond and even outside of filming, we also bond in that way with physical touch and, and personal attention, and playing with each other's hair, that kind of thing.

Anita Rao 24:19
At this point in the conversation, we have been clear that ASMR is not a sexual response. And the vast majority of ASMR content is not designed to evoke one. But like anything on the internet, you can certainly find a more sensual, sexualized version if you search for it.

ASMR Video 24:37
... home early tonight. We get to spend more time together.

Anita Rao 24:47
That was the world that Australian filmmaker Laura Nagy fell into in 2017, after a bad breakup.

Laura Nagy 24:54
It was one of those breakups in your, you know, mid to late 20s where you kind of feel like the world has ended. And I, just like everyone after a breakup, I felt incredibly lonely. I really struggled to adjust to simple things like there being nobody else in the bed with me, and coming home to no cuddles, and just not having intimacy in that way that I had really loved. And I knew about ASMR in the ways that most people do, like, I knew and enjoyed videos of people, like, having hair cuts. And I turned to that just to kind of, I guess, fill that space and get that sense of someone being close to me. And then just through a lot of clicking suggested videos, I happened upon some very specific ASMR, that was ASMR artists role playing to be your boyfriend or your girlfriend or, you know, any intimate relationship really. But because I was really missing romantic intimacy, I — yeah, they were kind of like my rebound boyfriends.

Anita Rao 26:07
In addition to making film, Laura is also a writer and producer. And she's the force behind the 2021 Audible original podcast "Pillow Talk." Over the course of eight episodes, Laura documents her journey into ASMR content and digital intimacy, uncovering the good and the bad. At the very beginning of that journey, listening to ASMR boyfriend roleplay was a way for her to find connection without the heartbreak.

Laura Nagy 26:34
You know, all my friends were like, "You should just get on Tinder or, you know, go to a bar, and, like, find an actual rebound. Like a normal person." But that I think just was really scary for me. I found intimacy with real people to just be, like, a really high risk activity. So it was kind of this way that I could basically experience that with zero consequences and without anyone knowing. So the stuff I was listening to it first was, you know, really simple things like a guy, like, makes pasta for you, and you watch a movie. And, you know, these audios can go for hours. And there's, like, gaps in the audio, so you can talk back. And you kind of form these, like, parasocial relationships with these audio creators. But, you know, I found other things too, like, I had some sexual trauma. And there was audios I was listening to a lot that were, you know, kind of like spicy, intimate, sexual audios. But halfway through you, the listener, says that you want to stop and the voice on the other end is like, "That's totally fine. I respect that." And the rest of the audio is you just like cuddling and like watching, you know, "Parks and Recreation" or something.

Anita Rao 27:49
So there's such a range in this world. And the vast majority of people who turn to ASMR are not listening for sexual gratification. But as you mentioned, there is a sub genre that kind of brings together ASMR techniques and audio erotica. And you say in the podcast that finding the genre brought you closer to your sexual self than you'd been in a long time. What did it help you discover?

Laura Nagy 28:12
It was just an extension of, you know, it took away a layer of vulnerability that kind of was holding me back. When you listen to an audio, there's no real human that a judge you, there's no one even watching you. It's just a voice in the dark. So you can kind of explore different parts of your sexuality, you can explore different kinks. You can turn it off the second it grosses you out, or the second that it doesn't feel right. It's immersive auditory erotica.

Anita Rao 28:43
Can you talk a bit more about that parasocial relationship that begins to form, and some of the creators who had the most meaningful impact on you?

Laura Nagy 28:54
Yeah, I mean, I think everyone relates to the experience of listening to a podcast and kind of feeling like the podcaster is your friend. You know, but the difference with an ASMR artists versus, like, most other celebrities is that they're, like, pretty accessible people. Like, they're just people on the internet. Some of them are kind of like influencers. But I ended up in a few, like, groups, so that what kind of like fan groups, I guess, where we interacted with the performers, and they're our friends. And that was some really interesting dynamics, because you're really hanging on to that person's voice is like, a lifeline. But then having a totally separate relationship with them, as well as the fans. Like, you're kind of all bound together because you're sort of lonely, you know. So, in some ways, it was really beautiful. You know, I did kind of start living like a lot of my life on the internet. It was really kind of consuming and yeah, I'm not doing that now. But it was it was sort of an amazing band aid for me for a while.

Anita Rao 30:00
You did get involved in one very particular online community with an ASMR boyfriend experience creator who you later discovered preyed upon a number of folks in that community, including you. How did that experience inform your relationship with ASMR content moving forward?

Laura Nagy 30:21
Yeah, you know, that was really upsetting. It's not something that I talk about too much now. And I feel fine now. But, you know, you come into those spaces, because you want to feel confident, and because you have kind of a wound that you're trying to put a salve on. You know, that you can have that experience in real life as well. You know, ASMR and the internet is, is, you know, that's just people. It's, it's another place where you meet people, and some of those experiences are good, and some of them are not good.

Anita Rao 30:59
How did you — your relationship with certain types of ASMR changed? Like, are you still interested in the boyfriend experience ASMR? What kind of ASMR do you listen to?

Laura Nagy 31:08
You know, now I don't listen to any roleplay actually. I get that from my real friends. And you know, from, from all my loved ones. Now I listened to just the sounds, I love goo. Big fan of goo and slime. I can watch that get mushed up in someone's hands for a long time. I love the hairdressing, I love actually, you know what's so ridiculous is that when the intimate relationships, you know, by humans, shifted from something that felt really beautiful to something that felt quite dangerous, I got really into ASMR with animals. So, like, these ridiculously cute ASMR videos of like, cats going to like a spa. And like getting, you know, getting a massage and they wear, like, these tiny little robes. And — or just like dogs eating strawberries, or a watermelon, or whatever, into a really good microphone. So yeah, so now, now I purely listen to it in a relaxing way.

Anita Rao 32:20
I'm going to have to search those out. I'd love to end with just hearing about kind of how ASMR shaped your overall relationship with your physical body. Because it's such an embodied experience to listen to ASMR, it's so immersive. How would you describe how that has evolved for you?

Laura Nagy 32:39
Yeah, the funny thing is that when I first started listening to it, I wanted to not have a body at all. Like if I could have become, like, form of steam, and just, like, taken off my body like a wetsuit or something and just left it on the floor, I would have done it. I didn't like being touched by real people. You know, I was very deliberately searching for intimacy in a way that wasn't tangible. Kind of weirdly, it allowed me to kind of connect to my body and my you know, sort of sensual self in a way that I couldn't do with a physical person because I was constantly watching myself through their eyes. I'm sure lots of people do this when they're having sex, right? Like you're going "Oh, how do I look from that angle? And, like. maybe I should have like shaved my legs because they're a bit spiky." Like, it just completely removed all of that. And let me just enjoy what my body felt like and the experience of being in it and to imagine someone touching it in all these ways where I didn't judge myself. So in that way it, it was an incredibly healing tool that I just found. Like, you know, you don't have therapists recommending ASMR, though I suspect that, like, Dr. Craig Richard will possibly get that — push that through. I think that it is a tool that can absolutely be more researched. Because I think that for people with trauma, particularly, you know, relationship or bodily trauma, it is such a wonderful, under-researched tool.

ASMR Video 34:28
Thank you so much. Thank You.

Anita Rao 34:51
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast consider a contribution at now.

A big thank you to all of our guests today, and a special thanks to ASMR artists Em and Katie. Today's episode is produced by Gabriela Glueck, who enjoys whispered facial treatment videos featuring bubble sounds. And edited by Amanda Magnus, who loves ASMR tapping videos. Kaia Findlay and Paige Miranda both also produce for this show, and they are big fans of slime sounds. Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our technical director. And they both say that almost all ASMR content makes them cringe. As always, Quilla wrote our theme music.

I also have to take a second here to say a very bittersweet goodbye to the producer behind this episode. Gabi has been with us since last fall, and we are so, so sad to see her go. She has taught all of us so much about sound design, and you've heard some of her beautiful work in episodes like this one, our AI series and more. She is incredibly thoughtful, a really hard worker and has a kind of creative and editorial mind that is such an asset to a team like ours. Gabi, we will miss you, but we can't wait to see what you get up to next.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, someone still searching for those elusive brain tingles.

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