When she first felt it, she had no idea what it was. In kindergarten in central Russia, Maria and her friends would sometimes tickle each other gently, running their fingers over the skin of their forearms. For Maria, the experience was transcendent, sending a cascade of goosebumps over her head and down her back: “I would be left in a zombie-like state,” she says. “I would just be so relaxed.”
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.
It's funny - for me some of these clips didn't quite work. But they sure did for my rabbit who listens to various forms of media - tv, radio, conference calls, me - most of the day. He usually is quite a passive listener and will only occasionally respond with ear turning or a change in position that shows he's listening to something different that has caught his attention.
My main trigger is watching someone concentrating silently on a mundane task (writing, drawing, ironing, cleaning, doing a puzzle) and them not being aware that I am aware of what they are doing. I also find sometimes that having a haircut can produce the same sensation. I also find that the feeling can sometimes be accentuated by gently rubbing the back of my neck with something like a pen or the end of my glasses. I haven’t yet found a video that works as a trigger – it needs to be there for real and even then doesn’t and won’t happen “on demand”.
Binaural recordings are made specifically to be heard through headphones rather than loudspeakers. When listening to sound through loudspeakers, the left and right ear can both hear the sound coming from both speakers. By distinction, when listening to sound through headphones, the sound from the left earpiece is audible only to the left ear, and the sound from the right ear piece is audible only to the right ear. When producing binaural media, the sound source is recorded by two separate microphones, placed at a distance comparable to that between two ears, and they are not mixed, but remain separate on the final medium, whether video or audio.
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.
While little scientific research has been conducted into potential neurobiological correlates to the perceptual phenomenon known as 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (ASMR), with a consequent dearth of data with which to either explain or refute its physical nature, there is voluminous anecdotal literature comprising personal commentary and intimate disclosure of subjective experiences distributed across forums, blogs, and YouTube comments by hundreds of thousands of people. Within this literature, in addition to the original consensus that ASMR is euphoric but non-sexual in nature, a further point of continued majority agreement within the community of those who experience it is that they fall into two broad categories of subjects.
“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.
Jacob Daniel is clearly a savvy child – although excitable and eccentric, he talks soberly about safety on YouTube, clapping his hands as he tells children to “be, be safe”. He tells kids to use fake names, access their email with VPNs, and avoid making custom Skype calls with viewers. For all his intelligence, however, Daniel is still a child. He and Prunkl show off a series of wigs they play with at home – he dons a purple one with red horns; Prunkl shows me her doll. They talk excitedly about the pranks they play on the public, wearing the wigs to order food in take-away shops.
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.
In an era where social media fails to provide its users with a feeling of personal connection, ASMR steps in to bridge the gap. "The number one thing that we need as human beings an attachment. That's what it’s all about. We want to attach, we don't want to feel alone or isolated. Our body does that for us. So, when we feel good, we feel close, and we feel attached. So that's what the videos are tapping into on some level," she explained.
The term ASMR was coined in 2010, but the audio and visual-induced sensation has always existed. If you've ever experienced that cringe-worthy, face-scrunching feeling you get when you hear nails on a chalkboard, ASMR is the exact opposite. It's the chills you get when you hear a beautiful voice singing. It's the prickly sensation when you hear or see something soothing, without having to physically touch it.
Have you ever had a pleasing reaction to something but were unable to articulate how it makes you feel because it makes absolutely no sense? For example, I love the smell of freshly opened tennis balls. I am fully aware that the smell shouldn’t be great, it’s hardly enticing on paper. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s a musky, muddy, petroleum, rubbery odor. Sounds great, huh? Interestingly, there is a fraction of the population who, like me, loves this smell.
"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?'
In 2012, Steven Novella, a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine wrote a blog post about ASMR, asking “the most basic question—is it real? In this case I don’t think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is… It’s similar to migraine headaches—we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.” He goes on to speculate as to what ASMR could be—possibly small seizures, or “just a way of activating the pleasure response.”
Well. I started getting ASMR or Empathic Enlightenment as I called it, since the late 70’s. At a family gathering in ’79, I spoke with an old hippie Artist, a Painter, a friend of my mothers, who told me it was “Enlightenment”. Empathy for a moment shared he said. He too, was inflicted with the ability, and spoke in a hushed tone about it, Bob Dylans “Hurricane” played in the background, as he told me about the metaphysical and artistic side of life. I never forgot that night, and “Hurricane” is still my favourite song.
Yang Haiying is a soft-spoken Asian woman with thousands of videos uploaded to her Youtube account. The videos cover a whole bunch of topics ranging from painting to cooking to the making of tea. I’ve only seen her tea-related videos, but she has the kind of voice that will shiver you right up—and she knows it, too. Some of her videos are titled and tagged as “Inadvertent ASMR,” so she definitely knows the power of her sweet voice.
As for what can trigger episodes in people, it almost always involves close interaction with another person. Usually, that other person is speaking to you in soft or deep tones, and always kindly. There’s usually also a component of adjacent sound coming from an inanimate object that, in conjunction with a person’s voice, helps trigger the episode. This can be the sound of scissor blades scraping together during a haircut, the sound of someone turning magazine pages, or, in my case, the sound of pennies sliding across concrete.
Listening to a binaural recording through headphones simulates the binaural hearing by which people listen to live sounds. For the listener, this experience is characterised by two perceptions. Firstly, the listener perceives being in close proximity to the performers and location of the sound source. Secondly, the listener perceives what is often reported as a three-dimensional sound. This means the listener can perceive both the position and distance of the source of sound relative to them.
She has invested in her craft, upgrading to top-notch binaural microphones that carry every exhale into a listener’s ears as if Maria is standing beside them. Her videos, like most ASMR recordings, are undeniably intimate. But the intended response — although often described as “brain orgasms” — is not sexual, ASMR enthusiasts insist. (Unsurprisingly, a few of the creepier online comments insist otherwise.)
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'.