It turns out I had experienced my first incident of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), though I would not find that out until earlier this year when I researched hypnosis videos on YouTube that supposedly help you sleep better. ASMR isn’t a phenomenon confirmed by science, and it’s only in recent years, after people across the world began to report their ASMR experiences on the web, that scientists have even started to study it.
"ASMR is not as odd as it sounds," said Burnie Burns, co-founder and chief creative officer of production company Rooster Teeth. "In the 90s we had CDs and audio tapes of rain forest sounds that many people used for relaxation purposes -- there just wasn't a fancy term to classify that media. Since online video has become a phenomenon, now we have a whole new generation of those kinds of ephemeral experiences created by people all over the world."
Mockery is a problem for any child in the limelight – one of Jacob Daniel’s fellow ASMRtist United founders quit YouTube after being picked on at school. Kelly says there are rumours that one girl at school said she was “annoying”, but most people think her channel is “cool”. Yet Kelly isn’t just a famous ASMRtist – she is also a meme. On social media, people edit her videos into short clips and share them with relatable captions.
Understandably, considering the whispering, and the intimacy, and the term “brain orgasms,” ASMR can seem at first blush like a fetish of some kind. The ASMR subreddit clarifies: “This is sometimes referred to as head orgasms, but this is about as sexual as saying eating chocolate is orgasmic (in that it's not sexual).” And while they may exist, none of the many videos I’ve watched in the course of reporting this article have had any sexual content.
According to Setz, this citation generally alludes to the effectiveness of the human voice and soft or whispered vocal sounds specifically as a trigger of ASMR for many of those who experience it, as demonstrated by the responsive comments posted to YouTube videos that depict someone speaking softly or whispering, typically directly to camera.
In another study, detailed in a forthcoming paper, Smith and colleagues tested 290 people who experience ASMR for what are known as the Big Five personality traits, and compared their results to those of an equal number of “matched controls.” Smith and colleagues found that ASMRheads scored higher on measures for what’s known as “openness to experience” and neuroticism and lower for conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness—findings the researchers say warrant more study.
In addition to the effectiveness of specific auditory stimuli, many subjects report that ASMR is triggered by the receipt of tender personal attention, often comprising combined physical touch and vocal expression, such as when having their hair cut, nails painted, ears cleaned, or back massaged, whilst the service provider speaks quietly to the recipient. Furthermore, many of those who have experienced ASMR during these and other comparable encounters with a service provider report that watching an "ASMRtist" simulate the provision of such personal attention, acting directly to the camera as if the viewer were the recipient of a simulated service, is sufficient to trigger it.