In the last decade, thanks to YouTube, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) has grown from a hard-to-describe psychological oddity into a mass cultural phenomenon, writes Jamie Lauren Keiles
When Jennifer Allen watched videos of space, she sometimes felt this peculiar sensation: a tingling that spread through her scalp as the camera pulled back to show the marble of the earth.
It came in a wave, like a warm effervescence, making its way down the length of her spine and leaving behind a sense of gratitude and wholeness. Allen loved this feeling, but she didn’t know what caused it.
It was totally distinct from anything she’d experienced before. Every two years or so she’d take to Google. She tried searching things like “tingling head and spine” or “brain orgasm.” For nine years, the search didn’t turn up anything.
Then, around 2009, it did. As always, Allen typed her phrases into Google, but this time she got a result on a message board called SteadyHealth. The post was titled WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD: “i get this sensation sometimes. theres no real trigger for it. it just happens randomly. its been happening since i was a kid and i’m 21 now. some examples of what it seems has caused it to happen before are as a child while watching a puppet show and when i was being read a story to. as a teenager when a classmate did me a favour and when a friend drew on the palm of my hand with markers. sometimes it happens for no reason at all”
In the discussion, many described a similar feeling — a “silvery sparkle” inside the head, a euphoric “brain-gasm” or a feeling like goose bumps in the scalp that faded “in and out in waves of heightened intensity.”
Many people agreed that the sensation was euphoric. (“Aside from an actual orgasm, it’s probably the most enjoyable sensation possible,” one user wrote.) Its triggers were as varied as watching someone fill out a form, listening to whispering sounds or seeing Bob Ross paint landscapes on TV.
Allen scrolled through pages and pages of discussion.
Oh my gosh, she remembers thinking. These people are talking about exactly what I experience.
In time, that post begot a second post: WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD — PART 2. As discourse on the unnamed feeling evolved, users shared accidental triggers found online — a man unlocking a damaged padlock, someone brushing her hair. These videos had a gentleness in common that many of the users found hard to describe.
Some spoke of the need for a research group to better understand the sensation. Still others expressed fear over social repercussions: Were they perverts? Were they sick?
“People had been told they were on drugs or that they had lice — things like that,” Allen says.
Allen had invested a lot in the discussion, even expressing interest in the fledgling research effort. She saw how the feeling had improved her sense of calm, but she worried that the subtext of a “tingling sensation” would hold the group back from legitimacy. If they wanted to generate scientific interest, they needed a more scientific-sounding name.
And so in February 2010, she made one up: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. She started with “autonomous” because it was a feeling from within; “sensory” was self-explanatory.
“Meridian” worked triple duty, suggesting peak but also orgasm and the energy pathways of traditional Chinese medicine. “Response” was just to say that it was not a constant state; it happened in reaction to a set of stimuli, like gum chewing and tapping.
“I wish I’d made it a little shorter,” Allen says. But at least it sounded better than “brain-gasm.”
She debuted the new name on the SteadyHealth board by announcing the “ASMR Group” she had registered on Facebook. Discussion-board users migrated en masse, and soon membership spanned six continents: a blogger in South Africa, an artist in Detroit, an ethnobotany researcher working in Australia.
They started sharing links to videos again — not the accidental triggers of before but a new genre created for the express purpose of inducing ASMR. These videos often featured anonymous women delivering soft-spoken voice-over narration. According to message-board lore, the first video of this type was one titled “Whisper 1 - hello!” that was posted in 2009.
Under the search-engine-friendly banner of ASMR, a new crop of YouTube creators emerged to serve up the feeling to those who knew they felt it — at that point, a small but growing subset of the public.
Today legions of (mostly female) creators release, by my count, around 500 new videos on YouTube each day. Over the course of reporting this article, I spent at least 200 hours on the site, watching women chew gum, swallow octopus sashimi, simulate eye exams, turn pages of books and peel dried glue off artificial ears.
I watched a teenage girl role-play as a 14th-century nun, treating me for the bubonic plague. I watched a two-hour recording of hair-dryer sounds.
Any trigger that starts to find fans is endlessly taken up and reperformed — ripped off by different channels for ad euros — at least until the next trigger takes its spot. One month, cranial nerve exams are in.
The next month, creators are all shaving bars of soap, chewing bricks of raw honeycomb or eating buckets of KFC. This subculture is bonded not by belief but rather by an ineffable sensation — perhaps the first time the internet has revealed the existence of a new feeling.
Craig Richard, a professor of physiology at Shenandoah University in Virginia, first heard the term “ASMR” in 2013, on a podcast.
“I’m listening to the beginning of this episode thinking, ‘This is a bunch of woo-woo bunk!’” he told me. Just as he went to turn the podcast off, the subject changed to the painter Bob Ross — by then, a well-known ASMR trigger. Richard’s eyes lit up. In childhood, he spent afternoons watching Ross paint landscapes on TV. He remembered caring more about the painter than the painting.
When the episode was over, Richard went to his computer to look up the research on ASMR.
At that point, he found nothing academic — only websites and forums that led him to the Facebook group. He reached out to Allen, and in collaboration with a graduate student and member of the community named Karissa Burnett, they conducted an informal online survey that, over time, has received more than 25,000 voluntary responses.
Richard also started ASMR University, an online archive that today remains a useful clearinghouse of research on the topic.
Still, scientific understanding has moved slowly. Funding for ASMR research is hard to justify, and the diverse nature of ASMR triggers can lead to “noisy” data.
To date, ASMR University lists just 10 peer-reviewed papers. More than half of these were published in author-pay journals. The most rigorous studies use fMRI to map the activity of blood flow in the brain as participants report feeling the tingles.
Outcomes have suggested, in very small samples, that ASMR might have something to do with socially bonding “affiliative behaviours,” known to release feel-good hormones like oxytocin.
Richard, for his part, considers these outcomes from an evolutionary-biology perspective. He believes that the tingles of ASMR are meant to assist in reproduction and survival, and points out that triggers like grooming, whispering and eye gazing all bear strong resemblance to the ways that humans soothe infants.
In adulthood, a range of similar behaviours contribute to intimacy between mates. But if ASMR plays (or played) a key survival role, why does it seem that only some people can feel it? Why should it come to our attention only now?
Around the time that “Whisper 1 - hello!” was picking up speed in Allen’s Facebook group, Gibi — today one of YouTube’s top “ASMRtists” — was a sophomore in high school. (I’ve withheld her last name here for below-explained reasons.) Like many teenagers these days, she often had trouble falling asleep.
Sometimes she would sneak her phone into her room and watch YouTube videos to relax her mind. Makeup tutorials segued to massage, which soon gave way to ASMR.
Since then, Gibi has watched ASMR videos every night. The ritual followed her off to college, where the videos became a kind of white noise while she studied. ASMR was, by that point, not just for those who experienced the tingles.
The genre had begun to find broader appeal as a sleep aid, an alternative to guided meditation and a drug-free, online version of Xanax. It had developed its own microstars, women with handles like Gentle Whispering ASMR and ASMRrequests, who filmed themselves crinkling paper, tapping their nails on large wooden bowls, dealing cards, brushing hair and pouring cold milk into bowls of Cocoa Krispies.
One of Gibi’s favourites, Heather Feather ASMR, went beyond mere sound effects, performing full-scale role-play scenes infused with attentive, deliberate sound. In one, Heather administered a colorblindness test, tapping her wand on a laminated chart. Watching Heather’s videos made Gibi feel as if her “brain was swimming, in a good way.”
She played the same scenes over on repeat, returning to parts that gave her the tingles.
At that point, in June 2016, Gibi thought that maybe, with regular effort, she could produce a quality channel with a regular schedule that tested out new, creative triggers on a regular basis.
And so, in the summer before her senior year, she started her own channel, Gibi ASMR. Six months after graduation, she was earning enough in ad revenue to treat it as her full-time job. Today she has about 1.8 million subscribers on YouTube.
I first met Gibi in Los Angeles at Daiso, a Japanese discount store. Our plan was to shop for some tingly props — any little odd or end that might yield good, recordable sound. Gibi was in town for a public appearance.
That day, a video from her account was trending globally on YouTube, a role-play called “The ASMR Sleep Clinic | Tingle Experiment.” Gibi’s main goal is to relax her fans.
“If you fall asleep during my video, that’s a compliment,” she said. Some of the most-requested content is the sound of fingers tapping on a bread-shaped piece of cork. Fans request the “toaster coaster” by name — the closest thing ASMR has to “Free Bird.”
That day, she was searching for similar objects, made of soft, dull wood or thick glass. In the store, Gibi made a beeline toward a rack of piggy banks. “Whenever I pick something up, I’m always listening to it,” she said, tapping her nails on a piggy bank’s candy-coated glaze. The lacquer made a dainty, plinking sound, like the loose filament of a shaken, burned-out light bulb. She moved on to rustle a strand of orange tinsel, then brushed her hand against the grain of a vellum birthday card.
Gibi is the LeBron James of touching stuff. As she paused to fondle a makeup brush, I heard the grip of her finger pads reluctant to give up the cellophane wrapper. When she smoothed the fleece of a microfiber towel, I cringed at the drag of rough callus against terry cloth.
Gibi moves with the demonstrative intent of a former high school theatre kid. (She is one.) She is hot in the way of a friend’s older sister, projecting an air of humble self-assuredness.
For those who watch her at home, this apparent emotional availability can foster a range of attachments. Gibi says that most of her viewers are kind and effusive. Under her videos, they leave thousands of comments, appreciating the sound of her voice and its power to alleviate their insomnia, anxiety and PTSD. For others, the tender tone can be misleading. Unloading her shopping basket at the till, she told me the story of one obsessive fan who believed she was talking directly to him. He sent her tens of thousands of messages, she said, and she filed a police report. Other fans have pried into her past, digging up old records from high school.
Creepiness and harassment are widespread problems for the young female creators of the ASMR world. Gibi takes extreme precautions to protect her own privacy. She doesn’t share her last name, or her relationship status, or even what city she lives in. If she happens to meet a fan on the street near her house, she pretends that she’s there on vacation.
As a genre, ASMR seems doomed to appear sexual — a suspect jumble of tingles and pleasure and subservient women you watch alone at your computer. Are those who feel the tingles just a bunch of repressed weirdos? Questions like this have plagued ASMR ever since Jennifer Allen first cringed at the word “brain-gasm.”
“A lot of the visuals you might see” in ASMR videos “relate to how you might visualize what happens during healthy foreplay,” Craig Richard says. “People talking gently to each other, people touching each other lightly, gazing into each other’s eyes, expressing physical or vocal care for each other — making the other person feel safe.”
If ASMR is not sexual itself, then Richard believes it might still belong to a general complex of safety, caring, connectedness and trust.
Nevertheless, the gender imbalance of performers seems suspect. ASMR combines the one-way sociality of podcasts with the outcome-driven imperative of porn. The viewing pattern even looks similar to porn, but this perhaps goes beyond mere horniness. For much of human history, women have been cast into care-taking roles.
With centuries of imbalance, it makes plenty of sense that our brains would find peace in these strange and gendered invocations of comfort. Is that healthy?
Is that normal? Really, who can say? Sitting alone in front of a screen, nothing seems that weird anymore.
c.2019 The New York Times