Are you feeling stressed? Anxious? Worried about the potentially eternal abyss of nothingness whence you came and whence you shall return? Don’t self-medicate with your roommate’s Xanax and a glass of wine. There’s a recently dubbed phenomenon that might have you walking on sunshine called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).
When we first started researching (read: Googling) ASMR and scavenging YouTube, we were both confused and fascinated. Naturally, we thought ASMR was a kind of cult Internet subculture. We were wrong.
First, what is ASMR? It’s a tingling sensation that starts in the back of the neck and crawls down your spine, radiating into euphoria. How? By watching YouTube videos featuring soft methodical sounds: whispering, tin foil crinkled into a ball, a paint brush bestowing a little tree with a little happy life. So long as a repetitive sound straddles the line between silence and audibility, it may switch on your ASMR — if you have it.
Gentle Whispering ASMR is one of the most popular ASMR content creators, with over 930,000 subscribers to date. Her top video has been viewed 18 million times, while even her least popular videos still garner well over 500,000 views, and enough comments to fill two Sydney Opera Houses of sanguine listeners.
And she’s just one creator.
Searching “ASMR” on YouTube yields over 7.6 million results. Meanwhile, Reddit’s ASMR community has over 128,000 subscribers. Who needs Freud when you have MassageASMR to take your troubles away?
The standard video features an ASMR artist (colloquially dubbed ASMRtists) sitting in front of a camera. They susurrate like a breeze creeping through a cracked window. While their voices are barely perceptible, the message isn’t as important as the sound of their sticky lips bopping together while enunciating mundane words.
Turns out, saliva echoes like a deep bass.
The spectrum of videos that trigger people’s ASMR response is dizzying, and at face-value, completely bizarre. Gentle tapping, blowing bubbles, chewing candy, slurping soda, slowly turning magazine pages like you’re stuck waiting in the quietest dentist office, are all stimuli that trip ASMR.
ASMR videos have exploded, and even Hollywood is paying attention to the sound of softly falling debris. Celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Eva Longoria and Cara Delevigne have all expressed interest or made their own videos — the latter made an ASMR video for W Magazine last year to promote Suicide Squad. Even KFC has an ASMR ad, with George Hamilton starring as Colonel Sanders massaging a crimson silk scarf.
While it's speculated, and reasonable enough, that ASMR has existed since Homo Erectus ate magic mushrooms off dung, the sensation didn’t have a name until 2010 when cybersecurity professional Jennifer Allen christened the term. Once ASMR was given a label, a new nation of people gathered on forums to write, “I experience that too!”
It all makes you wonder what other senses might exist but are waiting for their tag.
The question now becomes, “What is it?” Why is XxXCoolGuy69XxX leaving YouTube comments that say, “Thank you! Your ASMR videos help me sleep.”
Research is lacking. It’s only been seven years since ASMR got its own filing cabinet concept, and less since scientists considered the phenomenon seriously. But in the same way synesthesia was scoffed at before crafty experimenters whipped up proper controls, ASMR is slowly gaining the attention of intrepid investigators. We’ll gamble that multiple PhDs will be minted in pursuit of the nature of ASMR.
One prominent figure is Dr. Craig Richard of Swansea University. He’s proposed the Origin Theory of ASMR. Briefly put, it states that ASMR is linked to interpersonal bonding between infants and parents. Watching a video of Jellybean ASMR recalls the soothing coos of your mother, which is why you feel relaxed and comforted and secure.
Meanwhile, Emma L. Barratt and Nick J. Davis of Swansea University confirm what YouTube commentators have been writing for years. They surveyed about 500 ASMR experiencing volunteers and found that the majority of participants watch videos to feel the same way as do people who cross their legs and hum, “Ohm” to be mindful. Like mindfulness meditation, ASMR videos — at least preliminarily — relieve symptoms of depression and even chronic pain.
But the most interesting question is why doesn’t everyone experience ASMR? Are some people tapping into some kind of sixth sense? Doubtful. At least one study suggests it's due to personality differences. People prone to ASMR tend to seek new experiences and be slightly neurotic: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." While those of us who turn on an ASMR video and hear only confusion tend to be conscientious and extroverted.
While researchers light candles to escape the cave of ignorance, YouTubers continue to churn out videos at the same pace Guangdong, China ships goods to the United States. By the time researchers have solid ground to stand on there may be double or triple the number of ASMRtists that exist today. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
The eruption of ASMR content is fascinating for reasons beyond what scientific research can tell us. ASMR videos are the antithesis of typical online media: videos that feature hyperkinetic personalities bubbling from one topic to the next. Instead, ASMR is an excuse to be calm, to be mindful, a reason to take time away from Facebook and Twitter, to remove yourself from the maze of endless distractions, and breathe.
While some people listen to Alan Watts to guide them towards Zen meditation, others listen to ASMR Angel build a jigsaw puzzle for three hours. Both seem to be accomplishing the same goal: serenity.
ASMR videos are another path in the woods, one that leads to the same destination but along its own gentle streams. Still, no amount of research is going to help us understand the joy of watching an ASMRtist massage a pineapple.