So I've been working on some pretty weird stuff lately, yet this may be a more embarrassing topic to write about. For some percentage of readers, this article could make a major positive impact on your life. For the rest, I'll come away looking like a total wacko. I'll take those odds.
Despite the very official-sounding name ascribed to it, there is no science to prove the existence of the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. We have no idea what percentage of people have the ability to experience it, where it comes from, what it's for or what brain mechanics are involved.
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But if you're lucky enough to be able to feel it, there's a growing and thriving community out there producing thousands of free samples of canned pleasure and relaxation.
Let me start from my personal experience. As a schoolboy, I had a particular French teacher whose voice would put me into a trance. As soon as she started talking, it felt like my brain would start tingling. Her measured cadence and accent felt almost like some sort of mind massage. It was incredibly relaxing – and felt amazing, almost like an audio version of one of these:
I started to notice that certain voices and accents would give me these "braingasms" as I started to call them, and if I stumbled across the right voice I'd turn to jelly. I remember keeping one poor telemarketer on the phone for ages, just asking her to keep repeating herself as I melted into a pool of sheer relaxation.
An old girlfriend and I discovered that we could create a similar effect by softly crunching ice cubes in each others' ears – something about the sound would give us goosebumps all over. It was fantastic, but I never really thought much more about it, until I stumbled across this T.M. Lewin video about suit fitting on Reddit.
Now, I need all the help I can get with fashion, but this video made my head buzz so hard I couldn't concentrate. I watched it three times, then went into the comments section and somebody had left a link to /r/asmr, a community of others that experience these relaxing head tingles in response to a wide array of stimuli. I was not alone. In fact, there seems to be quite a lot of us.
Since then, I've been watching a vast array of long and otherwise incredibly boring videos specifically designed to produce the ASMR response. Most people I've mentioned it to have no similar response at all, and can't imagine why I'd sit and bliss out to an 18-minute video of a Russian girl folding towels, or a Greek girl waving her hands in my face, or somebody tapping their fingernails on a wooden box.
You can probably begin to imagine why this is kind of an embarrassing hobby – I'm 36, male, bearded and known mainly for my love of super-fast motorcycles. And yet my brother catches me, asleep, with my phone on my chest and a video still playing. It's a woman whispering softly to me as she pretends to give me a makeover. Not cool.
But for those of us that feel it, it's so refreshing, soporific, hypnotic and addictive that we've just got to go hunting for more of the good stuff.
Here's what we know about ASMRNot everyone experiences it. Sorry to those who don't, you're missing out. Those that do tend to respond to very different stimuli, although there are some strong themes:
- Soft, soothing voices
- Whispering very close to a microphone, or your ear
- Even, measured speaking tones
- Foreign accents
- Mouth noises like lip smacking
- Close personal attention, like haircuts, makeovers or doctor's examinations
- Handiwork and expertise
- Tapping sounds
- Rustling or soft crinkling sounds
- Gentle handling of precious items
- White noise
And there's others. It's odd, in that each person is looking for the right person, with the right voice, doing the right things, even using the right microphones, to get them going – and what switches some people on can actively ruin the experience for others.
ASMR is experienced in different ways, but predominantly as a tingling sensation in the head and scalp area that may extend down the neck and limbs. There is sometimes a trance-like state involved, and it's often coupled with an intense feeling of relaxation.
ASMR aficionados make a distinction between ASMR and frisson, the goosebumps and tingles that can be produced by an amazing piece of music.
It seems to be possible to build up an immunity to the ASMR feeling, particularly if you indulge in too many videos, but it also seems that you can get the feeling back if you take a break for a while.
Here's what some people think might be going on hereSome people believe ASMR is a residual response from early childhood, an echo of the calming, soothing effect of a mother's voice on an infant, coupled with the close, caring personal attention a parent can give.
Others look further back in our evolutionary development, proposing that perhaps the sensation goes back to our roots as primates, a sensory reward for submitting ourselves to nit-picking and grooming by other members of our groups.
Either way, I don't believe there's any current research being undertaken even to prove the existence of the effect, or study what the brain is doing during ASMR tingles.
The Online ASMRtist communityThere is a strong and growing community of YouTube "ASMRtists" out there producing a huge amount of material specifically targeted at different viewers' ASMR triggers. They pop up all over the world, which is great if you like accents, and enthusiasts quickly discover favorites – people that can hit the spot more reliably than others.
Some of the bigger names in the field, such as GentleWhispering, TheOneLillium, ASMRrequests and EphemeralRift go to almost comical lengths to create the right atmosphere in each video. Because expertise and demonstration of knowledge in a field can be triggers in and of themselves, you'll often see ASMR videos for which these guys have put in a lot of prior study and preparation.
As videos can easily get up beyond the 40 minute mark, it's clearly a huge investment of time and energy – and yet, time and again you'll see ASMRtists (particularly the really good ones) disappearing from YouTube due to harassment and creepy messages.
You can kind of understand why. To people who don't experience ASMR, the videos can rightly look completely ridiculous. Also, because a sense of intimacy can be a very powerful trigger, it's no surprise that some of the best artists are very attractive girls, and there's clearly some personal security risks when you're putting your face out there and developing strange online relationships with people who might start to rely on a false sense of intimate connection with you.
My five favorite ASMR videosHere's a few videos that reliably get me buzzing. Your mileage may vary, even if you are susceptible to ASMR. Take a look and see if any of these work for you … and use headphones!
QueenOfSerene's Book Store Clerk role playQueenOfSerene always seems to have put a lot of research into her role plays – which is great, because it helps the old suspension of disbelief along. Apart from the fantastic soft voice and mouth sounds, this video also features a lot of fingernail tapping and gentle handling of books.
asmraurette's "Cranial Nerve Examination"Cranial nerve examination role plays are very popular – probably due to the close personal attention angle they offer. This video features some great mouth sounds too.
Gentlewhispering's "Relaxing Towel Folding TutorialMaria has become one of the most recognizable faces of ASMR. One of her videos was the first in the community to hit a million YouTube views, and she produces a huge amount of fantastic content. In this video you don't see her face at all, but you get to enjoy her voice, her slight accent, and her gentle hand movements. Plus, you'll learn how to fold the HECK out of some towels.
Ephemeral Rift's "Professor Clemmons" videoThis one's extremely slow, and features lots of tapping, crinkling, a humming sound and a huge range of triggers. At nearly 48 minutes long, it's also fantastic to go to sleep with. Ephemeral Rift is a quirky guy though, be warned!
ASMRrequests' Sci-Fi Space Travel Role PlayNot just a great ASMR video, but an example of the amazing levels of effort that some ASMRtists are willing to put in. Imagine how much work went into every aspect of this video – Ally, the creator, told us it took her two fairly solid weeks and I wouldn't doubt it for a second.
How'd you go?Let us know in the comments below if you experienced anything while watching these videos. Did you find them relaxing? Did you experience any tingling sensation? Did you feel like an idiot? Since there's so little data out there it's interesting to hear what you guys find!
Thanks to the ASMRtists above for allowing us to use their videos. Each of them has a YouTube channel chock full of relaxation and ASMR material. Here's some other resources if you find yourself tingling (or find it helps you sleep) and want to pursue it further:
- Reddit's /r/ASMR/ subreddit
- The Unnamed Feeling is an ASMR community blog
- The Hairpin has this fantastic interview with Maria (GentleWhispers)