ASMR: Inside the weird world of autonomous sensory meridian response
ASMR is the tingly phenomenon that you’ve probably never heard of, but will likely have experienced. We investigate a new kind of relaxation
What is ASMR, and how does it work?
A new wave of YouTubers, podcasters and Instagram personalities are racking up millions of views by literally whispering into a microphone, often with bizarre make-believe scenarios, like buying a new vehicle from a car showroom or going to see your doctor where you’ve supposedly arrived to receive some sort of medical treatment.
The very same people are also using the ‘soothing’ sounds of scratching coasters, rubbing book covers and crinkling crisp packets to put viewers in a Zen-like state of relaxation.
Welcome to the world of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). What’s that, you ask? It’s that tingling sensation you get that starts in your brain and runs down your spine, relaxing both your body and mind. The often soft and repetitive sounds of ASMR triggers put you state of ease, which many use to help them nod off to sleep at night. Think of it like that warm fuzzy feeling you get from being inside when rain is hitting your window, or when you first drink a hot coffee in the morning.
It works using a number of different triggers, providing different sounds and sensations. Whispering might be the one that lulls you into a deep sleep, scratching or tapping an object may help you concentrate on a task, while watching someone apply make-up you may find therapeutic, for instance. ASMR vloggers will often talk directly into the camera and have one-way conversation with the lens to make you feel like you’re in the room with them having a personal conversation. You may even be asked to close your eyes as they reach out to the camera to ‘touch’ your face. The darkness of having your eyes closed heightens the strength of your other senses, making it easier to imagine the person on screen is actually in contact with you.
Living in the Information Age of the internet has allowed ASMR to develop into a global movement with people finding others online who share the same triggers and sensations. It’s believed the culture began with a blog post in 2007 in which someone asked if others felt any similar sensation, which they’d been experiencing from childhood. Low and behold someone else had been wondering the same thing and a community was born. Two years later in 2009, Sympathetic Breathing Meditation by Quiet Mind Cafe was posted to YouTube and is believed to be the first ever, it was soon followed by more quiet talking accompanied with the sounds of a colouring book and running fingers over the stitching of a pillow. To date, the clips have close to ten thousand views – not bad, but nothing compared to today’s videos.
How the little whispers are making a big noise
Nowadays a quick search on Google or YouTube will instantly throw up thousands of ASMR videos, even Buzzfeed dedicated an episode to it on its Netflix series Follow This. As its popularity has grown so has the commercial opportunities that come with it. The GentleWhispering channel on YouTube, run by Maria (she doesn’t reveal her surname) is one of ASMR’s top performers, regularly pulling in millions of views for clips of her making noise with a hairdryer, make-up brush or out touching the new Tesla. Over 1.5 million people subscribe to her channel and her videos get up to 20 million views each. She herself stumbled upon ASMR following a divorce in 2009, which led to her searching for some kind of therapy to distract her from the stress and negativity.
Her life changed forever when she found a whispering video online, which helped her relax. Soon she was hooked and started making her own videos and by 2015 she was earning enough money from YouTube adverts to not need a job. Although she hasn’t revealed her exact earnings it’s estimated that her GentleWhispering channel nets her $130,000 (AED477K) per year. Through an ASMR Facebook group she also met her boyfriend and use ASMR in real life, like playing with each other’s hair and whispering to each other, as bonding exercises. Maria lives in the United States having moved there from Russia and has now made more friends though her vlogs than by going out into the real world.
Massimo Tarantelli owns the ASMR Barber YouTube channel, which he set up after noticing the triggers released by the noise of cutting hair, brushing shaving foam on someone’s face and the sound of a razor. He started recording his trips to the barbershop, as well as massage parlors, in 2013 after becoming aware of the growing ASMR community. Five years on and his videos have amassed a staggering 170 million views, earning him $2,000 (AED7,345) a month.
Vlogger Olivia Kissper also earns a steady income from ASMR although she spends around 30 hours making a single video. That time includes scriptwriting, research, and filming. Her USP is that she aims to inspire lucid dreaming – an effect which can take months to get right with her videos. Kissper makes most of her money through Patreon, an online subscription service where people pay to view content. This, plus her YouTube videos brings in around $1,000 (AED3,672).
How the stars and celebs taking it mainstream
The exposure ASMR stars have earned in recent years has made them celebrities in their own right - including Gibi who stars on her own YouTube channel Gibi ASMR. She’s one of the most recognizable faces of the community and also has a huge social following on both Instagram and Twitter with 112k and 55k followers respectively. Where there’s a trend you can bet ‘actual’ celebs aren’t far behind, ready to ride the crest of the wave.
Recently, rapper Cardi B recorded herself talking about her life and career in a soothing ASMR-style video. In the 13-minute recording, she admits to being a fan of the movement and gets the tingles when watching and listening to the videos, even though her husband finds the whole thing strange.
Australian actress Margot Robbie recorded a similar video recently for W Magazine where she takes viewers on a journey through her life. The Suicide Squad star is seen, and heard, scraping Vegemite on to toast in the clip to replicate the sounds of her childhood. The video has clocked up a whopping 3.3 million views.
And it’s not just individuals cashing in. IKEA was one of the first brands to jump on the trend, releasing a 25-minute clip with a relaxing voice-over explaining how to put together the perfect student dorm room with the company’s products. The video, which has over 2 million views, focuses on a person’s hands tapping, scratching and playing with items in the university room.
How scientific studies are helping it gain legitimacy
Despite the phenomenon, the science behind it all is still being debated with some researchers questioning the entire movement. However, a study earlier this year by the University of Sheffield, UK, revealed the physiological benefits of ASMR. Scientists found that the relaxing ‘brain tingles’ experienced by some in response to triggers may have both mental and physical health benefits. The research, which claims to be the first of its kind, found that those who watch ASMR videos have significantly lower heart rates than those who don’t watch the clips.
A separate experiment involving 1,000 participants found that those who watch ASMR filled out the online survey showed more excitement and less stress through their answers, as opposed to the answers from people who have not been exposed to ASMR.
Having said that, researchers agree that it doesn’t work for everyone – it’s still believed that either you feel the effects of it or you don’t, to put it simply. It remains unclear exactly why our brains feel a tingling sensation with different triggers, however Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine offered his insight in a blog post, saying: “Perhaps ASMR is a type of seizure. Seizures can sometimes be pleasurable, and can be triggered by these sorts of things. Or, ASMR could just be a way of activating the pleasure response. Vertebrate brains are fundamentally hardwired for pleasure and pain — for positive and negative behavioral feedback.
"We are rewarded with a pleasurable sensation for doing things and experiencing things that increase our survival probability, and have a negative or painful experience to make us avoid harmful behavior or warn us about potential danger or injury.”
It’s also been discovered that viewers of the videos can grow accustomed to the sounds and they lose their soothing effects, which means there’s all the more reason for vloggers, or ASMRtists as they’re also known, to keep producing new and engaging content. YouTube now has over 10m videos, and with celebs and brands capitalising on it, there’s no sign of ASMR slowing down any time soon.
ASMR podcast you need to try
Ease yourself into the ‘ahh’ of ASMR with these sleep-inducing, concentration-promoting podcasts.
Here’s one of the most popular ASMR podcasts out there, ideal for the entry-level listener. As prescribed on the tin, low-level voices ramble and read from a series of topics as your eyelids suddenly feel heavier. One night, you might listen to host Harris talk about a rather mundane day, the next evening fall asleep to his wispy readings of short stories.
The ASMR Podcast
If you’re new to this weird world, here’s the listen to help you decipher what makes you tick – or tingle, even. Different contributors from across the genre guest host each episode. Recent guests include Sherlock ASMR reading, erm, Sherlock Holmes books, Ariel ASMR featuring anything from water sounds to virtual makeovers to Harris of Sleep Whisper.
She’s got over 60,000 subscribers on YouTube, so you know she’s doing something right. The Queen of Serene really immerses the listener in her art, with roleplaying being her key niche. She’ll pretend to be a telemarketer with the listener as the customer or act as a tailor conducting a gentleman’s suit fitting. All in a heartbeat-lowering tone.
If textured sounds are your thing, this therapeutic podcast experiments with unusual noises. Recent episodes include tapping on a wooden box, typing on a keyboard and the crunch, crackle, and crinkle of a crisp packet. Some might leave you with goose bumps, while others you might want to give a miss. But that’s the beauty of it, after all.