ASMR seems to need an emotional component to it, and Winter says that’s not accidental. “Some things may remind you of your mother or being a kid,” he says. “I’d guess that it’s no accident that a lot of the videos of someone whispering feature an attractive woman, which make you think of your mom whispering to you when you went to sleep.” Those memories the videos evoke are likely comforting, and can shift people into a more relaxed state that then helps them fall asleep, he says.
It seems bizarre that people would spend any amount of time watching a person play with what amounts to DIY Play-Doh, but these videos are hugely popular—and it may have something to do with a phenomenon known as autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). The condition usually causes a relaxing tingling in a person’s scalp and the back of their neck, and can extend into the rest of the body in response to particular sounds, smells, or visuals, according to the ASMR Lab.
For outsiders, ASMR has always been weird. “One thing that’s interesting about the ASMR experience is that it’s about close personal attention,” says Giulia Poerio, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield who has undertaken multiple ASMR studies. Role-play videos thrive in the ASMR community – online, you can watch someone pretend to be your dentist, masseuse, or even a receptionist checking you into a hotel. “They’re basically a simulation of what would happen if you got ASMR in real life,” Poerio explains. “Multiple triggers are layered to get an effect.”
The bizarreness of this footage means ASMR isn’t without controversies. In June 2018, the Chinese government banned ASMR videos, branding them “vulgar” and “pornographic”. In August, PayPal began blocking the accounts of ASMRtists who received money to make custom videos (although the company later denied it has a policy against ASMR content). For those who don’t experience ASMR, the videos can seem fetishistic. Beyond the weirdness of whispering and making “mouth sounds” as in Kelly’s honeycomb video, some people nickname ASMR a “brain orgasm”.
For many people they might have experienced the sensation of ASMR before but not necessarily understand it, or seek it out too seriously. When you first find the ASMR community online it can be a very exciting time, knowing that you are part of a group and a very welcoming community. However it can also be very overwhelming and it isn’t particularly clear where to start. For some great tips to help you get the most from your ASMR you should check out our free ebook.
Daniel and Prunkl keep a folder full of this man’s transgressions and have notified the local police. “Sometimes it scares me,” Daniel confesses, quieter now. “It does scare me that this guy could be anywhere.” Similarly, Makenna Kelly fears that kids at her bus stop will follow her home and leak her address online. “I just go down to the clubhouse and wait ten minutes just to make sure nobody knows where I live.”
Another article, published in the journal Television and New Media in November 2014, is by Joceline Andersen, a doctoral student in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, who suggested that ASMR videos comprising whispering 'create an intimate sonic space shared by the listener and the whisperer'. Andersen's article proposes that the pleasure jointly shared by both an ASMR video creator and its viewers might be perceived as a particular form of 'non-standard intimacy' by which consumers pursue a form of pleasure mediated by video media. Andersen suggests that such pursuit is private yet also public or publicized through the sharing of experiences via online communication with others within the 'whispering community'.
He posted earlier this year on the ASMR subreddit, calling for volunteers, and completed the study in May. First, he looked at how ASMR videos affected "normal people"—18 Dartmouth undergrads. "In the second study we selected only people we knew could reliably experience and report ASMR," he says. "For this we used 10 subjects, most of whom were people from the subreddit who could commute to Hanover, New Hampshire. In this second study we asked the participants to bring in videos that they knew would trigger their ASMR. They then watched the videos in an MRI, while indicating periods of ASMR with a button press."
The writing in this article helped me understand ASMR, but the videos don't seem to be the best examples (it doesn't help that these examples aren't very long). The best examples of what they are talking about to me would have to be the crackling of a fire. Also, whispering in my ear gives me intense tingles, but part of that may be the vibrations off of my ear drum.
The first study to perform actual brain imaging (fMRI) on subjects currently experiencing ASMR tingles (as opposed to individuals who were merely able to experience the phenomenon) was published in BioImpacts in September 2018. Subjects viewed several ASMR videos with a screen and headphones while inside the MRI scanner. The study found a significant difference in brain activation between time periods when the subject reported tingling (communicated by pressing a button), as compared to time periods when they were watching a video but not reporting tingling (communicated by pressing a different button, to control for brain activation effects caused by merely pressing a button). They concluded that "the brain regions found most active during the tingling sensations were the nucleus accumbens, mPFC, insula and secondary somatosensory cortex", and suggested that these were similar to "activation of brain regions previously observed during experiences like social bonding and musical frisson".
The website for ASMRtist United looks remarkably like it was created by a child – which it was. Founded in August 2017 by 14-year-old Jacob Daniel, the “company” offers advice to ASMRtists under the age of 18. There is a guide on how to filter sexual comments, advice on coping with cyberbullying and a post entitled “How do I stop my school from finding my channel?”.
Ally Maque is an ASMR YouTuber (ASMRrequests), who makes her living making videos. She once heard from parents of a young boy who suffered frequent horrible migraines. “They said that a series of videos I did, where I read fairy tales from a bedtime story book—whenever they’d put those videos on for their child when he was suffering, it would help,” Maque told Newsweek. “That one brought me to tears.”
“If you can’t experience it you’re gonna either think it’s weird or you’re gonna think it’s creepy,” Hunnicutt says. Aoki – now playing with her toys in the corner of the room – thinks aloud. “IT’S NOT CREEPY!” she shouts emphatically (although it’s worth noting that with her childish rhotacism, it comes out as “cweepy”). Like many ASMRtists, she notes that these videos help people with insomnia, PTSD and stress. “I mean there’s always some weirdos in the world, but you can’t stop helping others just because there are those people.”
I can trigger it at will, whenever I want with any kind of intensity as I please. I can concentrate the sensation in any place of my body, say tip of a single finger or my whole body. But, I want to know, is it wrong to abuse it? Or is it good? What can happen if I continue using it? By the way, I don’t need external stimuli to activate it, just the desire to do it, it’s like moving your hand.
ASMR is usually precipitated by stimuli referred to as 'triggers'. ASMR triggers, which are most commonly auditory and visual, may be encountered through the interpersonal interactions of daily life. Additionally, ASMR is often triggered by exposure to specific audio and video. Such media may be specially made with the specific purpose of triggering ASMR or originally created for other purposes and later discovered to be effective as a trigger of the experience.