Before we begin, find a nice quiet place, plug in your headphones, and play the following video:
If you didn't feel anything: Well, that sure was a strange way to spend time, huh! If you did feel something, specifically a euphoric tingling sensation on your head, neck, or upper body: Congratulations! You're a receptor to the phenomenon known as ASMR! And you are not alone.
The person in the video is Maria, a 28-year-old woman originally from Russia who goes by the profile name “GentleWhispering” on YouTube. She's doing something in that video, but what it is kind of defies categorization. De-acronymed, ASMR means “autonomous sensory meridian response.”
“When I was little, I used to call the feeling 'shocks' and no one understood what I was trying to say.”
Viewers who experience ASMR—numbers prove that something's happening here; Maria boasts a channel with nearly 400,000 subscribers and more than 87 million hits—reportedly feel highly pleasurable tingling sensations. Some claim a feeling of peace, others report sexual arousal. Some claim the videos help them concentrate, others use them as a form of “white noise.” It's used to alleviate pain, depression, anxiety, even PTSD, and the only thing the “patient” needs is a computer and some headphones.
If harnessed properly, it could be the medical miracle of the Internet age.
“I have had ASMR for as long as I can remember,” says Heather Feather, one of the most popular ASMR artists working today. “When I was little, I used to call the feeling 'shocks' and no one understood what I was trying to say.”
Heather would get the “shocks” whenever her mom drew on her back with her finger, when teachers wrote on the board with soft chalk, or when they used pointers to identify locations on a map. Most of all, the sensation occurred whenever someone with a soft voice was speaking. When it happened, her body would shiver and be enveloped in a euphoric feeling. “It was similar to goosebumps, but it differed in that it felt awesome, and it made me sleepy.”
A few years ago, Feather began to chase this feeling down. She searched on YouTube for terms like 'female soft voice,' 'hair brushing,' or 'nail tapping,' and eventually stumbled across a video from “GentleWhispering.” It was exactly what she was looking for. “Sometimes it can sound dramatic when someone says a moment changed their life,” Feather says, “but that moment really did that for me.”
"There will also be people who try to integrate sex and ASMR. It comes with the territory of being on the Internet."
In September of 2012, Feather set up her own video camera on a homemade tripod consisting of seven cans of cat food and made her own video. The following day, she had six subscribers. Two and a half years later, she has over 225,000 subscribers and nearly 50 million hits. In mid-January, Feather put together a four-and-a-half-hour super-cut of her top 120 ASMR “triggers.” It already has more than a million views.
“The growth of the ASMR community has been fast and massive,” Feather says, “and I think it's because people are discovering they aren't alone in feeling something they've experienced their whole lives.”
Part of the fun for Feather is also how creative she's allowed to get. While her first video only took a few hours to create, she now needs anywhere from 15 to 20 hours to make them, from the prep time (she often researches role-playing techniques, finds props to utilize, performs audio/visual tests) to the posting of the final product (which will often include special effects that need extra time to render). “You can sit in front of a camera and chat, you read books, you can tap on objects, you can play pretend, you can design video games, you can form elaborate immersive mini-movies, and even full-length films,” she says.
Now, it's difficult to look at a bunch of Internet videos featuring close-ups of young women and not feel as if there's something sleazy happening here. (A quick scroll through any video's comments section will include at least a few shiver-inducing moments of creep.) But Feather doesn't think ASMR is sexual in nature. “The sensation is one that elicits relaxation and sleep, so it's counter-productive to arousal,” she says. While people talk about ASMR giving them a “brain orgasm,” that's more a playful description than anything.
“That being said, people can and will sexualize whatever they want,” Feather says. “There will also be people who try to integrate sex and ASMR. It comes with the territory of being on the Internet.”
The diversity of Feather's audience also speaks to how it's being used. She receives comments from creepy single dudes, sure, but those are alongside notes of gratitude from pregnant women who can't sleep, soldiers with PTSD, students trying to find relief from school-related pressures, and folks who just like to have a calm, soothing voice in the background. These people experience something; that's really no longer up for debate. But why?
“I have no idea why it works,” Feather says. “I don't like to speculate why.”
“I wish I could give you an answer,” says Emma Barratt, a graduate student at Swansea University in the United Kingdom who, along with psychology lecturer Nick Davis, published the first academic investigation of ASMR. “At the moment, we just don't know.”
While they haven't yet cracked the reasons why the videos have these effects—theories range from it being a cousin to meditation (the long takes and static imagery forcing viewers to sit still) to it playing in the realm of synesthesia (where stimulations in one sense triggers reactions in another) to it simply being a return to the warm comfort we experienced as sleepy children—Barratt and Davis were able to find out why people use them.
"Were the tingles I got from getting my haircut as a kid ASMR? If so, seems I lost it somewhere along the way."
“People experienced an improvement in mood during and after ASMR, and this was especially true for people with generally low mood,” Davis says. According to their stats, 98 percent of people watched the videos to relax, 82 percent said that they help them sleep, 70 percent said they help them deal with stress, and only a small percentage (five percent) claimed they provide sexual stimulation.
One question that's still being investigated is why there needs to be video for ASMR to work. For an action that seems mostly audio-based, it's odd that there's such a connection with the video. Davis has a theory, however. “ASMR seems to be about close personal attention, or (non-sexual) intimacy, so I guess video helps to create a sense of immersion in the scenario,” he says. Barratt, meanwhile, believes it is simply the ease of the format. “Videos are just the most common form ASMR media takes, rather than being a necessary format.”
Which isn't to say videos are always necessary for someone to get the tingles. “I received some feedback from someone in the ASMR community who told me that reading our research had given her an ASMR experience!” Barratt says. “This seemed to be because of the methodological, focused tone of the piece, which we found to be one of the most common triggers of tingles.”
Those of us who don't currently experience it are out of luck. ASMR does not appear to be something that can be “learned.” You either have it, or you don't. Davis hadn't heard about ASMR before beginning his investigation, so he can't watch the videos without turning off his scientific analysis brain. “It ruins the immersion for me!” he says. And while Barratt does not experience ASMR herself, she does remember getting tingles on her head during haircuts when she was a child. “Were the tingles I got from getting my haircut as a kid ASMR?” she asks. “If so, seems I lost it somewhere along the way.”
Where does ASMR go from here? Technology has come a long way since Bob Ross—arguably the world's first, albeit accidental, ASMRtist—painted his landscapes on PBS. And improving tech will allow ASMRtists to give their viewers more advanced content to ... do whatever it is that's being done.
"You are going to see/hear ASMRtists and intentional ASMR content in advertising, movies, games, music, virtual reality, audio books, etc., in the very near future."
Prices for high-quality binaural microphones are now something amateurs with home studios can afford. The 3Dio Free Space Pro, which Feather says will “make the viewer feel like they are actually in the environment with the content creator,” goes for a reasonable $499. And after decades of false starts, it seems like high-quality virtual reality headsets are coming very soon. “We already have a 360-degree virtual reality project in the works with GentleWhispering that will be out soon,” Feather says. But will the future of ASMR continue to be so DIY?
Where there are views, there's money. At the same time, monetizing a product that's (a) cheap to produce, (b) makes people feel awesome, (c) safe, and (d) legal is the Holy Grail when it comes to business investments. (Feather's Patreon account shows that she earns nearly $2,500 a month off of these videos, and that doesn't include any extra Paypal donations she gets on a regular basis.) While Facebook's acquisition of Oculus VR back in 2014 doesn't mean the company necessarily plans to use the new technology for ASMR videos, it would be shocking if the social media giant didn't at least consider dipping its golden toes into them.
“You are going to see/hear ASMRtists and intentional ASMR content in advertising, movies, games, music, virtual reality, audio books, etc., in the very near future,” Feather says.
Meaning: ASMR won't remain relegated to some hidden corner of the Web. This is only just beginning.
The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.
Lead photo: A still from a video on the ASMRrequests YouTube channel. (Photo: YouTube)