While the Ephemeral Rift YouTube channel features conventional relaxing videos like trees rusting in the wind or someone shuffling wooden blocks, Paul also experiments by playing characters like Dr. Lampert Schade, a psychiatrist with a lampshade on his head, and Corvus Clemmons, a plague doctor who wears a bird-like steampunk mask. All the videos feature soft soothing sounds and no sudden movements.
ASMR can vary from person to person because it’s all about perception, licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells SELF. “We all perceive experience in a different way even though it is the same experience,” he explains. For example, while one person may find the sound of someone typing comforting (if, say, they had a parent who worked on a computer at home), others may associate the sound with office work and become more stressed when they hear it.
“We talked to her about how it’s good today but might be gone tomorrow,” Lacy says. With YouTube’s new, stricter regulations, child ASMRtists may be replaced by an as-yet-unknown breed of internet celebrity. Desireé Hunnicutt, for instance, is hoping that Aoki’s early start on YouTube will allow her to start a business. “I believe in Aoki figuring out what it is that she wants to do in life even early on and I hope it actually helps her,” she says.
Lacy is no cliché pageant mum. Lounging on the sofa with wet hair and a grey T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign, she sits back, scrolling on her phone, to let her child speak candidly. She does not push Makenna to answer in a favourable way, nor is she pushing her daughter into stardom in pursuit of fame or riches. “She makes significantly more money than I do and works significantly less than I do,” laughs Lacy, sitting with her legs tucked underneath her on the large brown suede sofa in the middle of the family’s modest apartment. “She doesn’t have to babysit or dog-sit or anything, so it works out good.” Makenna smiles shyly, showing off pink braces. “I do want to babysit though! I like kids.”
According to YouTube estimates, there are more than 45 million ASMR videos uploaded to the site, and, over the past year, there has been a marked increase in children making ASMR-related videos. Richard hypothesises that our brain is probably more receptive to an unknown child than a strange adult, making it easier for some individuals to be relaxed by ASMR videos featuring children.
Maria says that she hears from subscribers, including doctors and psychologists, who are excited by the ASMR research. But mostly, she gets thank-you notes — from people with anxiety or sleep disorders, from overwhelmed college students struggling through exam week, from military veterans who tell her that her videos offer a sense of calm that they can’t find elsewhere.
ASMR doesn’t work for everyone and it can be tough to imagine the sensation if you don’t experience it first-hand. For most people who do experience it, the blissful tingling starts up in the scalp and then makes its way through the body to the arms and legs. And as a result, it can trigger a feeling of relaxation before bedtime, which can help you overcome insomnia. The audio/video segments are long—in fact, some last up to an hour. They are lengthy so that you can keep watching or listening to them until you drift off.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a curious phenomenon. Those who experience it often characterise it as a tingling sensation in the back of the head or neck, or another part of the body, in response to some sort of sensory stimulus. That stimulus could be anything, but over the past few years, a subculture has developed around YouTube videos, and their growing popularity was the focus of a video posted on the Guardian this last week. It’s well worth a watch, but I couldn’t help but feel it would have been a bit more interesting if there had been some scientific background in it. The trouble is, there isn’t actually much research on ASMR out there.
The uncharted territory isn’t what people experience, Richard says, but how (some people are triggered through their own thoughts and memories; others through external sights, sounds or touch) and why. To help find answers, Allen and Richard’s team launched its first rudimentary ASMR research survey last month. It received more than 4,000 responses within the first 10 days.
The term ASMR was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a 39-year-old penetration tester. “For years I thought, ‘Jeez, maybe I have a brain tumour or something,’” she recalls. From 1999 onwards, Allen searched steadfastly for others like her online. In the late noughties, she stumbled upon a SteadyHealth.com forum in which a user named okaywhatever51838 discussed a “weird sensation” that “feels good”.
There is no solid data about ASMR, no published research studies — not yet. The term “ASMR” is nonclinical, coined in 2010 by a woman named Jennifer Allen who started an ASMR Facebook group and later became part of a team — along with Richard — that collected and analyzed anecdotal information about the sensation. Richard also notes the work of Bryson Lochte, a Dartmouth College undergrad who has used neuroimaging technology to study ASMR for his senior thesis but has not published his results.
“There needs to be a careful balance between skepticism and open-mindedness when investigating ASMR,” the Sheffield group say. “There is also of course the danger that ASMR videos get picked up by people who might try and use them to market pseudoscience or mental health benefits (without the evidence to support it), and inadvertently spread misinformation about it, which would of course damage the reputation of any genuine research going on,” they add. We’ve already started to see cases of this – just this week, in an interview with the Daily Mail, ASMR video producer Lauren Ostrowksi Fenton claimed that the sensation is produced by oxytocin, which she refers to as “the cuddle hormone, the hugging hormone, or the feel-good hormone”. Besides the fact that there’s simply no evidence that oxytocin is responsible for the sensation, the science behind the claim that oxytocin is a “hug hormone” is itself extremely weak.
“The reason people can get tingles and feel relaxed and comforted listening to Maria GentleWhispering is because she’s acting very much the way a parent would care for you,” he says, “with the caring glances, gentle speech and soothing hand movements. And a lot of the time she’s doing simulated touching. It’s pattern recognition. Our brains recognize the pattern of someone with a caring glance, someone with a gentle whisper, and we find that comforting.”
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.