On June 3 2018, Makenna Kelly, a 13-year old from Fort Collins, Colorado, uploaded the video that propelled her to internet stardom. Entitled “Eating Raw Honeycomb – EXTREMELY Sticky Mouth Sounds”, it featured the teen chewing fistfuls of pure honeycomb directly in front of a microphone for 16 minutes. In the following months, it was viewed 12 million times. By October, Kelly had reached one million YouTube subscribers.
I spoke to Dr Emma Blakey, Giulia Poerio, Tom Hostler and Theresa Veltri, who as graduate students at the University of Sheffield, are part of the new generation of ASMR researchers trying to do just that. They’re currently working on a study that will aim to see whether people who subjectively report the experience of ASMR also produce consistent physiological measures – for example, changes in heart rate, breathing rate, or skin conductance.
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”.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a calming, pleasurable feeling often accompanied by a tingling sensation. This tingle is said to originate in a person’s head and spread to the spine (and sometimes the limbs) in response to stimulation. The stimuli that trigger ASMR vary from person to person. Some of the most common ones include whispers, white noise, lip smacking, having a person’s complete attention (as in having one’s hair cut by a hairdresser), as well as brushing, chewing, tapping, scratching, whispering, and crinkling.
If YouTube videos are any indication, the most popular ASMR stimuli are whispering, tapping, watching someone have their hair brushed, and repetitive tasks like folding laundry. However, people can also experience ASMR from a bevvy of events like getting their hair cut or listening to music—there are a wide range of triggers and what works for one person may not work for you. ASMR slime videos may fit the bill—or not.
Emotionally, Kelly and Daniel seem equipped to deal with this backlash (Aoki Hunnicutt remains blissfully unaware of any negativity, and also much else about YouTube fame – at one point during our interview, she asks with concern, “Mummy, I thought we were going to do an interview?”). Yet while they are fine with their fame, it may trouble the young stars to lose it.
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.