“The strongest type of tingle…feels like sparkles or little fireworks going off,” she says. “The strongest one would give you the feeling of being exhausted, pleasantly tired, satisfied almost you want to say. Then there are much less strong tingles, and they feel just pleasant. Almost like sand is being poured down your spine. [Or] like when you get the funny elbow, when you hit it and it feels like it just goes off everywhere.”
Because this phenomenon was only recently given a name, the science backing it up is virtually nonexistent. Of the minimal research, one study published in PeerJ found that ASMR results in “temporary improvements in symptoms of depression and chronic pain,” while another study published in the International Journal of School & Educational Psychology determined that the phenomenon can soothe stress and help insomniacs. Basically, ASMR makes people happy and healthy.
The 21-year-old woman behind ASMR Darling, a YouTube channel with more than two million subscribers, said she goes only by her first name, Taylor, because she has experienced stalking and a public doxxing that made her fear for her safety. She said she made her first video when she was a teenager. “Being that young and being sexualized like that, it wasn’t a good confidence boost,” she said.
“One of our main aims is to try to draw attention to ASMR as a topic worthy (and capable) of scientific research, in the hope that it might galvanise future research efforts,” they explain. Of the group, three of them (Emma, Giulia and Tom) experience ASMR, whereas Theresa doesn’t. The study is still in an early stage – data collection has just finished – but this diversity in experience, they believe, is a critical component to their research. “So we starting thinking about how we might first and foremost investigate this phenomenon at the most basic level: what might it take to convince someone who doesn’t experience ASMR that it is a genuine and consistent experience for some people?” they explain. “Theresa doesn’t experience ASMR, and has valuable scepticism of the experience. It adds to the diversity of our research group and the questioning of our approach from a non-ASMR perspective,” they add.
Seven years later, ASMR is having a pop culture moment—even if many of those who use it don’t know what the acronym stands for. The phenomenon’s most popular practitioners have more than half a million subscribers, and the doyenne of ASMRrtists, Maria of Gentle Whispering ASMR, has been so successful that she’s been able to quit her job to role-play soothing cosmetologists, librarians and flight attendants full-time. But what is ASMR? What function does it serve, who is drawn to it, and why? Or, as researcher Craig Richard puts it: “Why are millions of people watching someone fold a napkin?”
The left side of Makenna Kelly’s bedroom is just like any other child’s. Her silver and white bedspread matches a feature wall, she has a dresser with her own TV and her nickname – “Kenna” – is spelled out in wooden letters above the window. On the right side of her room, however, things are less ordinary. There are three professional studio lights and a tripod, a silver plaque congratulating her on 100,000 YouTube subscribers and a framed letter from Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO. Sellotaped on the closet door is the fan mail.
While many colloquial and formal terms used and proposed between 2007 and 2010 included reference to orgasm, there was during that time a significant majority objection to its use among those active in online discussions, many of whom have continued to persist in differentiating the euphoric and relaxing nature of ASMR from sexual arousal. However, by 2015, a division had occurred within the ASMR community over the subject of sexual arousal, with some creating videos categorized as ASMRotica (ASMR erotica), which are deliberately designed to be sexually stimulating.