YouTube stars are taking the world by storm with their fishtail braids, smoky eye tutorials and Primark hauls.
But there’s another set of YouTubers, who haven’t become household names like Zoella and Tanya Burr just yet, who are clocking up similar kinds of viewing figures by gently whispering, crinkling stuff, playing with Lego and even pretending to give you an eye examination.
Dedicated fans watch these kinda eerie, kinda soothing videos in droves to experience the spine-tingling, brain-gasming, goosebump-inducing phenomenon known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).
This maybe-real-maybe-not phenomenon could be new to some of you, but ASMR has been discussed online under different labels and by all kinds of crowds, from psychologists keen to get to the bottom of its calming powers, to those who see it as a sex thing (well of course) to regular ol’ people for years.
Over the past year or so ASMR took off and generated significant press coverage everywhere from BoingBoing to the BBC. Its popularity is often attributed to a now infamous Reddit thread, which posed the simple yet loaded question “TIL [today I learnt] about ASMR, aka “that unnamed feeling” or “head orgasms.” So who else here has this?”
Since then, interest has grown among those who experience ASMR through to those fascinated by its psychological implications. Up until this year, there had been few formal papers on the topic, but in April the first peer-reviewed paper was published by members of the Department of Psychology at Swansea University, which felt like a huge step in the right direction for members of the ASMR community and explored the subject more than most pieces of research before it.
If you’re still just really confused by all of this, then chances are you might not be one of the lucky few who can watch a girl brushing her hair and feel a deep sense of satisfaction or listen to someone whisper in your ear and get a really good night’s sleep because of it. Or maybe you just don’t know yet.
It’s described by those who experience it in many different ways. But on the whole most agree it’s a pleasurable, tingling sensation that can be felt in the head, scalp, back or arms and legs. And it can happen in response to any kind of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or cognitive stimuli.
The list of things that can trigger it is pretty vast, but whispering tends to be one of the most popular triggers. Watching people fill in forms, draw, play with a hairbrush, touch others, carry out medical examinations, give massages and ask you about your day are all included in the huge and fast-growing library of ASMR videos currently available online.
I experience a certain degree of ASMR and have as long as I can remember. Soft whispers, having my hair or arms touched, watching people do something intensely, listening to the rain and even hearing things crinkling sets off the tell-tale signs in me. A feeling that I can only describe as light, cooling, pleasurable pins and needles that travel in waves from the back of my head down to the back of my neck and into my arms.
Researching the phenomenon and finding videos upon videos, articles upon articles, and different experiences was like opening a treasure trove. But the funny thing is, especially for those of us who experience ASMR, its existence is pretty much totally based on anecdotal evidence alone.
That means there’s little scientific backing that it’s actually a real thing other than the paper I mentioned earlier, which called ASMR a flow-like mental state. That serves as one of the first scientific introductions to the subject, therefore it’s no surprise there are huge communities of people who experience ASMR, as well as lots of sceptics.
Because ASMR isn’t official, it’s had lots of different labels over the years, like an “attention-induced head orgasm” or “attention-induced observant euphoria.” It wasn’t until 2010 that Jennifer Allen coined the term ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’ and despite being unwieldy, it just seemed to stick.
What struck me the most in my ASMR research is just how broad the term has become. So many different categories of ASMR videos exist which, like everything, just shows your ASMR response can be really subjective. What “works” for one person doesn’t necessarily elicit the same kind of response in someone else. All of which makes sense when you see just how many ASMR-related videos are out there.
Type ASMR into YouTube and you’ll see there are around 2.4 million results. You could spend all day – scrap that – all year watching ASMR videos and understanding the ins-and-outs, from people whispering stories through to elaborate role plays of a travel agent who wants to (very quietly) take you off into space.
But what we want to know is why? Why do some of us feel soothed by whispers? Experience euphoria at the sound of rustling food packaging? Feel happy and ready for sleep when we see someone brushing someone else’s hair?
Well, as you’d expect, there’s no one agreed reason why. More spiritual types will write about ASMR in vague terms of awakening and liken the experience to meditation and deep introspection.
The ASMR paper claims there’s a chance the feeling is something that is, or at least sounds, a little more sinister: “there is the possibility that the tingles associated with ASMR result from a minor seizure, brought on by appropriate stimuli.” The team points to the need for more extensive research in the area that utilises neuroimaging methods such as fMRI to better understand what’s going on inside our brains when we feel ASMR effects.
I spoke to Michael Carthy, a clinical hypnotherapist from MySkypeTherapy.com, who knows a lot about how using the tonalities of his voice can help him to communicate with people on a deeper level. Although, like everyone else, he doesn’t know exactly why ASMR affects people the way it does, he believes it’s evolutionary:
“I think it addresses one of the most primal needs, which is a sense of love and belonging. Which from an evolutionary perspective allows people to feel safe, secure and connected as they achieve a sense of flow when their attention is focused on something. The tangible everyday benefits would be reduction in stress, deeper and more comfortable sleep and a tool that could be described as an everyday coping strategy. I would compare it to the soothing feeling experienced during hypnotic and deep meditative states.”
His view is shared by most self-proclaimed experts on the subject and psychologists who have attempted to dig a little deeper into the phenomenon over the years. But from mini seizures to spiritual transcendence to just craving intimacy because we’re human, we’re clearly still at a stage where most of the explanations are more conjecture than fact.
So, what about the elephant in the room? Come on now, is it just a sex thing? Well, the answer is yes and no. As you’d expect ASMR has taken on a more erotic, porn-like role in some peoples’ lives. NSFW ASMR is a thing, as is ASMRotica, which is not at all surprising.
But interestingly, the more NSFW videos are nowhere near as popular as the maternal whispering and the more innocent forms of AMSR-ism. The paper I mentioned earlier attributes less than 5 percent of ASMR viewing in its sample group to feelings of a sexual nature.
In fact, many people are resolute about the fact it’s not at all sexual for them and explaining it away as just another fetish demeans the whole thing and reduces it in a way that’s far too simplistic.
So what people get out of it can be just as different as the different videos that are available. For some it just makes them feel happy, others peaceful, others horny, others use ASMR videos as a way to deal with anxiety and even those who are terminally ill have reported finding comforted in the whispering and comforting feelings they get from ASMR videos.
As you’d expect, more scientists and psychologists are waking up to the idea that what started off as an odd internet phenomenon might be something really worth looking into. There’s a new one of many ASMR surveys online that you can fill in and plenty of new papers and research projects planned to further explore this fascinating space.
And we can only imagine that interest will grow in the future. After all, getting to the bottom of why some people feel euphoric and others kinda nonplussed about the whole thing, could open up many doors.
Especially when it comes to stress relief, mental health and even chronic pain, as the anecdotal evidence would suggest that, for some people, whispering and soothing sounds can have a huge impact on their sleep, their mood and even their general wellbeing. Which certainly isn’t something to be passed off as a sexual kink, a weird fetish or just plain old made up.
Main image: YouTube