But given its popularity, why has the psychological research community neglected the sensation until now? There could be lots of reasons. For one, it’s an inherently personal, private experience, and perhaps one that hasn’t traditionally lent itself to cropping up in conversation all that often. That, coupled with the fact that it’s a difficult sensation to explain to someone who doesn’t experience it, may go some way to explaining why there wasn’t even a term to describe it until 2010. “Before the online community existed, I’ve heard many people who experience ASMR say they thought they were the only ones that experienced it,” says Barratt. “I think the lack of evidence that ASMR was experienced by such a huge group of people may be why it was overlooked, or written off as an oddly described version of frisson (‘goosebumps’), in the past,” she adds.
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.
But for the most part, the people running actual research studies on ASMR are optimistic about the future. And it bodes well that the first paper published on the sensation adhered to the principles of open science. “Psychology is going through a period of change, where we are looking at how good our methods are, and how reliable and reproducible our findings are,” Davis points out. “I don’t see research in this area as any different from other fields of psychology. We were very keen to be very open about our work, and we uploaded our complete data set so anyone can check our results, or find new things that we hadn’t considered. This sort of openness doesn’t solve every problem in psychology, but we thought it was a good start.”
The French word 'frisson' signifies a brief sensation usually reported as pleasurable and often expressed as an overwhelming emotional response to stimuli, such as a piece of music. Frisson often occurs simultaneously with piloerection, colloquially known as 'goosebumps', by which tiny muscles called arrector pili contract, causing body hair, particularly that on the limbs and back of the neck, to erect or 'stand on end'.
To date, only one research paper has been published on the phenomenon. In March last year, Emma Barratt, a graduate student at Swansea University, and Dr Nick Davis, then a lecturer at the same institution, published the results of a survey of some 500 ASMR enthusiasts. “ASMR is interesting to me as a psychologist because it’s a bit ‘weird’” says Davis, now at Manchester Metropolitan University. “The sensations people describe are quite hard to describe, and that’s odd because people are usually quite good at describing bodily sensation. So we wanted to know if everybody’s ASMR experience is the same, and of people tend to be triggered by the same sorts of things.”
YouTube banned Makenna’s channel for three days in November but reinstated it after discussions with the family. The company’s delayed decision against its largest child ASMRtist leaves questions about whether the phenomenon can be adequately monitored. Videos featuring the sexualisation of minors are banned by the site, and ASMR “mouth sound” videos now fall within this remit. Yet at the time of writing, a search for “child ASMR mouth sounds” on YouTube brings up hundreds of videos with a disturbing number of views.
ASMR is described as a pleasurable tingling that begins in the head and scalp, shimmies down the spine and relaxes the entire body. Maria — she asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons; her videos have sometimes attracted unwanted attention — experiences ASMR, and her YouTube channel, GentleWhispering, melds her personal tingle-triggers with others suggested by her fans. The resulting videos have drawn more than 87 million views, making Maria the premier celebrity of a controversial but increasingly recognized phenomenon.
ASMR is a relatively new phenomenon sweeping the audiophile community. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) affects millions of people, and even more, may not realize there is a name to their feelings. Those who experience ASMR have different reactions to a variety of types of sounds, all positive. Some feel tingly, some sleepy, and most feel relaxed. The types of sounds include whispering, tapping, crackling, touching, and popping, as well as many more.
Satisfying Slime ASMR: With close to 1.5 million subscribers, this is the go-to channel for crunchy slime videos. They post multiple videos a day, all related to slime, games, and toys. Their videos fit into several series related to food slimes, DIY (do it yourself) slimes, cutting stress balls open, and ASMR-specific slimes. Their most popular video about rainbow slime has over 45 million views!
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.
YouTube pays on average $2 per 1,000 views if you run ads on your videos, but there are many other factors involved in payment. For example, not all clips have commercials on them and different genres on YouTube have different payouts, depending on popularity. Maria says she doesn't think she could sustain a family with her ASMR videos, while Paul, who does have a wife and child, points out that a YouTube career doesn't cover additional costs like health benefits.
ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, is still a relatively new creation. It describes a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation that can come over someone when he or she watches certain videos or hears certain sounds. What kind of visual or audio clips can create such a lovely feeling? It might surprise you, but the videos are of people doing incredibly simple, quiet, calming tasks, such as folding towels, brushing their hair, or flipping magazine pages. You might hear someone’s voice speaking in the background of the video, but not always. The audio clips often consist of voices whispering nice things (like "You are appreciated"), or contain the sound of tapping, scratching, or rain.
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.