Over the past few years, a new trend started on YouTube and all of a sudden you could find many videos including words such as “whispers”, “tingles” or “ASMR” in its description. That last word, ASMR, has gained the upper hand over all the others and was established as a common bond for the online community. Just try to key in “ASMR” in the YouTube’s searching bar and you will be amazed by the amount and diversity of videos that will come up.
But what is ASMR? Let’s go again to the endless source of information called Wikipedia. According to it, ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensorial Meridian Response. What? Exactly, it’s still not very clear, so let’s keep reading: “…is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli”.
If you have never heard before about it, you can be skeptic or just believe that people who likes ASMR has a sort of mental disorder. Millions of viewers will make you quickly change these kinds of thoughts. In any case, being aware of the difficulty in explaining this phenomenon, I got in touch with six successful ASMRtists (yes, that’s how people that make this kind of videos tend to be called) to help me with the task of explaining you what ASMR is. So, forget your preconceptions, open your mind and use headphones (this latest, is probably the most used sentence in ASMR videos).
- fastASMR. Tapping and scratching:
WHAT IS ASMR?
In my words, I would say that it’s this tingling feeling that you get in extremely relaxing situation, like at the hairdresser, hearing a pleasant voice or receiving a massage. But that’s only my opinion because the triggers change from every person. For example, Bekah the person behind the account softlygaloshes defines it as: “that tingling sensation you get when someone plays with the back of your neck or strokes your hair”.
At the moment, we know that ASMR is a pleasurable sensation that some people get on specific situations and becomes tangible through a physical reaction. The important thing here is that this phenomenon is probably happening since the beginning of time, but it was a personal matter not discussed with others and happened only in random situations. With the advent of the Internet everything changed and people can now, not only induce ASMR feeling, but discuss that sensation with millions of people from all around the world.
Caroline, from Caroline ASMR, gave me a great answer about how to explain to someone unaware what ASMR videos are: “ASMR videos are basically videos made for relaxation purposes, where people creatively use different props to produce relaxing sounds that help people distress (…) there are thousands if not millions of people who watch and listen to ASMR videos, so clearly it is filling a need. If you read the comment section of these videos they can see that people appreciate these videos because they help them to live better lives”. She also recommends giving it a try and to look through the numerous kinds of triggers because in her opinion, “once you find the one that makes you tingle, it can change your life”.
She continued arguing, “Honestly, like I mentioned in another one of my answers, there is no difference between listening to an ASMR video to relax and listening to nature sounds or ocean waves”. Along the same line, Alexa ASMR said: “People think listening to music is an ordinary thing. There would be reasons why they’re listening, but no one cares. I think… watching ASMR videos is the same. There must be some reasons for it”. Alexa gives her explanation on ASMR in this video.
Some websites distinguish between ASMR type A, induced by no external stimuli; and type B, induced by external stimuli. In this article, we will focus on the second one, especially in YouTube videos and the online community behind them.
- softlygaloshes. Bubblegum Whisper:
As I said before, not everybody can feel it, but the ones that can experience it, are able to achieve it from completely different triggers. In contrast, the description of the feeling is quite similar in all of them, which from the scientific point of view makes it more credible. It is generally described as a pleasurable tingling that begins in the head and scalp, and goes down through the spine until the lower body, reaching even the limbs and producing a profound state of relaxation.
Most of the six interviewees agreed on the possibility of being a sensation only felt by certain people. But also in receiving feedback from people that, despite not being able to feel the sensation as it is described, still enjoy watching these videos because of their relaxing effects. They also insist on the diversity of individuals and triggers, pointing out that many people that don’t feel ASMR may not have found their triggers.
According to the ASMR Research & Support website, ASMR is “a physical sensation characterised by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine and through the limbs.”
As you can guess, our interviewees had a very similar answer. FastASMR defined it as: “Is a tingly sensation that starts on my scalp and sometimes goes down my shoulders and my back, if it is triggered very strongly”; and, Caroline as: “…it’s a pleasant sensation that generally starts in your scalp and moves down the back of your head”.
Another similarity in which most of the people agree, is that the feeling generally begins early in life and can be so pronounced that the majority of them can remember their very first ASMR experience. In many cases, it’s related to mother caresses, teachers’ voices, hairdressers or even school lice checking. Miniyu ASMR for example, when asked about explaining ASMR sensation, stated: “You can feel titillation when your mom combed your hair in childhood, and when friends whisper to you”.
FastASMR explained: “I discovered ASMR (without calling it that) when I was a kid, probably 3 or 4 years old. It happened whenever my mom or grandma stroked my back or “drew“ on it with their fingers. Having them style my hair also gave me ASMR.” In turn, NekoASMR, asked about her first ASMR experience said: “It was at the primary school, seeing a school mate drawing and colouring”.
Referring to the benefits of ASMR all the answers go along with the information found on the Internet. The primary positive aspect of ASMR is to help people to relax and sleep. It’s also said that it’s especially useful for people with stress, insomnia and sleep-onset issues, or even for those who are too nervous because it helps the brain to switch off.
Furthermore, some ASMRtists claim to have received feedback from people with real health problems like anxiety, panic attacks or depression thanking them for their videos. If we are to believe this, we cannot do nothing else but acknowledge than ASMR is making a good proposal.
Caroline, said about the effects of ASMR videos, “…they can sleep better, distress easier, and feel happier and less anxious…” Neko appointed the same words, “stress, insomnia and anxiety”, answering about the benefits of ASMR.
It is supposed to be so pleasurable that some people pointed out it can even become addictive, in the good sense. Therefore, people need greatest inputs to feel ASMR stronger and longer. That can be an explanation for the increasingly long and elaborate videos running around the Internet. In addition, the devices are becoming more and more important, seeing many ASMRtist introducing their new microphones, dummies or video recorders as a claim for their subscribers. Curiously, the objects used for creating the sounds are usually quite random such as daily used objects.
Due to these increasingly far-fetched triggers, some people said that, after a great exposition to ASMR stimulus, these can lose their effect. In this matter, FastASMR answered: “I don’t know if it can be trained. But I know you can become ´immune´ to it. A lot of people have reported that after watching a lot of ASMR videos they lose their tingles.” Neko went further and ensured that, “when we abuse the ASMR, we stop noticing it and we need a week or two without seeing ASMR videos to feel it again”.
At the same time, referring to the possibility to train the ASMR induction, Caroline answered: “Yes, I do think it’s possible. A lot of viewers say when they see their favorite ASMRtist’s name pop up in their subscription feed they get tingles immediately. They associate the artist with these feelings and it triggers their ASMR.”.
- Alexa ASMR. Eating sounds:
WHEN DID ASMR EMERGE?
The very beginning of all this trend started on the website SteadyHealth on October 19, 2007. The thread was titled “Weird sensation that feels good” posted by a member called Okaywhatever (http://www.steadyhealth.com/WEIRD_SENSATION_FEELS_GOOD_t146445.html). Then, a few blogs and forum groups started to discuss the matter. The most important was probably The Unnamed Feeling (http://theunnam3df33ling.blogspot.com.es/).
From there on, the feeling was attempted to be defined by many different terms, most of them combining words as brain, orgasm, head, tingle, attention or euphoria. Some of these names were AIHO (Attention-Induced Head Orgasm) or AIE (Attention-Induced Euphoria), but the sexual connotation did not convince the community at all. Even WHS (Weird Head Sensation) was proposed. It was also commonly compared to other sensations as goose bumps, relaxation and sleepy feelings.
Despite from those names, and the equally common term “brain orgasm” for defining ASMR, it doesn’t have any sexual connotation and the ASMR community rise up to make this clear in every occasion. They claim that ASMR is rather the opposite of a sexual feeling, not an explosion of pleasure, but a continuous relaxing state much more similar to a meditation trance. For instance, Neko thanked me not to have used the term “brain orgasm” because, “it can lead to misunderstandings, and none of the ASMRtist identifies with it”. She complained about the term still being widely used in the Medias when referring to ASMR, and she is right: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11298592/Brain-orgasms-these-whispering-women-are-doling-them-out.htm.
On this subject, Caroline stated: “I hope that some day ASMR will be understood scientifically and less people will view it as something sexual. I don’t show my face in my videos because I don’t want to jeopardize my career due to people who misunderstand ASMR.”
One of the things that make people believe ASMR has sexual connotations is the fact that the majority of successful ASMRtist are females. In any case, there are extremely popular male ASMRtists as well, such as MassageASMR, Ephemeral Rift or Tony Bomboni. In this interview http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/will-whisper-make-you-tingle-meet-asmr-experts200313, Maria, the person behind the most successful ASMR channel, GentleWhispering, gives her opinion about this matter.
The term ASMR is quite recent. It was coined by Jennifer Allen, member of the “ASMR University” (http://asmruniversity.com/ ) in 2010. It has been accepted broadly by the community, perhaps because it sounds more scientific and it doesn’t have any sexual connotation. It may seem not really significant, but these four letters made possible for millions of people to name a strange feeling which they have never spoken about.
The definite boost was produced by the onset of an entry in the popular news website reddit.com. This made the term widely known and its ASMR “subreddit” (http://www.reddit.com/r/asmr) turned into the main point of reunion for ASMR enthusiasts on the network. That’s the long story short, but the detailed events that have resulted in today’s ASMR community are perfectly explained in the following article: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/autonomous-sensory-meridian-response-asmr.
- Miniyu ASMR. Ear cleaning role play:
THE ASMR COMMUNITY
It is certainly sure that some people had always been experiencing this feeling, but the arrival of the Internet made possible to identify it, name it and discuss it among millions of users. At least from the communication point of view this phenomenon is astonishing.
Anyway, it won’t be appropriate to talk about these websites separately because they work as a large linked ASMR community where followers share their experiences and theories from site to site. There are even some articles referring to ASMR as a subculture and the ASMR fans are commonly called “tingleheads” on the net.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the ASMR community works sometimes as a defensive group where people who experience ASMR can discuss it smoothly without being seen as a freak. Accordingly, the final plea of this community is to find the scientific explanation for ASMR which could release them definitely from the misunderstanding from the naysayers.
The words of Neko are a good example, when she admits, “what I tell people that I know little and do not know how you will react to this subject, or people that I know are close-minded and will not understand it, is that they are videos of relaxation, for people with stress, insomnia, anxiety and more. I do not speak of the tingling on the scalp and all those things”.
It is also a very common answer, when someone is asked about their first time learning about the ASMR existence, to have experienced a kind of relieve knowing that they are not the only ones and instead, there is a full community sharing their small secret.
Another thing that has surprised me in the course of my research is the positive and respectful flow of the comments among the ASMR community, declining automatically disputes, blasphemy, politics or even sexual references about the content. If it happens (as it’s normal in a public place like YouTube), the tone of the replies used to be something like: “this is an ASMR video, it’s not the place to discuss that (…), please, do it elsewhere”. In any case, it is also true that the person who uploaded the videos has the capacity to ban comments, so I guess that if they are taking it so seriously they will be enough careful to delete extremely aggressive, insulting or offensive content.
In this article, Tony Bomboni, a well-known ASMRtist speaks at length about how to cope with trolls: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/how-do-you-defeat-anti-gay-trolls-youtube-star-explains-how-he-coped280813.
Focusing in YouTube videos, there is a huge variety of them trying to activate ASMR through hundreds of triggers, giving each individual the opportunity to look for the one(s) that work for him. This is a personal, and probably incomplete, categorization of the most common technique to induce this pleasant feeling:
- Elemental sounds (rain, nature, scratching, crinkling, tapping, crisp sounds, brushing…)
- Human sounds (soft speaking, whispering, mouth sounds, chewing, speaking in foreign languages, blowing, accented or special speech, lip smacking…)
- Role plays (doctor, psychologist, hairdresser, masseuse, librarian, eye examination, teacher, personal attention, intergalactic traveller, grooming…)
- Action involving another person (head massage, back massage, foot massage, haircut, shaving, hair brushing, head scratching…)
- Careful actions (painting, drawing, wrapping/unwrapping, page turning, handling small objects…)
- Daily tasks (towel folding, clothes adjusting, sorting cards, Lego construction, computer assembly…)
I have also read articles making a division between visual, aural and tactile triggers. Anyway, the best step to know a little bit more about these triggers (and, why not, find the ones that work for you) is to take a stroll through the millions of videos available on YouTube, beginning with the ones proposed here. This is a list of the top 10 triggers made by one of the most popular ASMRtist.
Admittedly, most of the people don’t know about ASMR, and others just don’t feel it, like the author of this article: http://www.vice.com/read/asmr-the-good-feeling-no-one-can-explain. Obviously, these people may wonder why someone can be watching a video of a grown man dressed as an intergalactic traveller doing simple repetitive sounds and movement for 45 minutes. This is probably the most controversial, and at the same time, the most fascinating, aspect of ASMR.
It is also common to hear that most of the people discover this feeling in a completely unintentional way, doing other things not related with the ASMR forced induction. This can also happen online, the Bob Ross videos surely the most appointed unintentional ASMR triggers. What is more, Bob Ross has become, twenty years after his death, an ASMR icon around the net. Another character I do not want to miss this opportunity to show you is Baba, the Cosmic Barber. This barber from Pushkar, in India, becomes famous in when a client uploaded a video of his head massage techniques back in 2008. Note that the term ASMR did not even exist. Since then, many travellers had recorded their visit to Baba’s barbershop turning him much later into another of the ASMR symbols.
- Caroline ASMR. Ear Touching & Cupping:
IS THERE A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION?
I have to say that, thanks to FastASMR, I found one of the most recent scientific studies about ASMR made by Emma L. Barratt, Nick and J. Davis from the Department of Psychology of the Swansea University, in the United Kingdom. Through an online poll, they tried to connect ASMR with neurological phenomena as synaesthesia or misophonia. It also validates some facts already mentioned before as the different triggers, feeling and intensity for every individual as well as the early-life discovery of ASMR.
Some academics are starting to show interest in ASMR and few of them had made references to the phenomenon. In general, as in the case above, they are doing it from the neurological point of view. They also ensure that, despite being connected with other neurological phenomena, ASMR is hard to be studied due to the difficulty of being observed. They are trying to find relations with neurological events such as synaesthesia, musical frisson and substances like dopamine that are related with the “reward system” of the brain.
These are the most relevant mentions to ASMR made from the academic world:
- Tom Stafford, Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield (UK). He thinks that ASMR can be real, but recognises that there are still many questions to be answered: http://mindhacks.com/2013/05/13/the-unnamed-feeling-named-asmr/.
- Steven Novella, director of General Neurology at the Yale University School of Medicine (US) wrote a post about ASMR in 2010. He focuses in the brain connections: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/asmr/.
- Robert J. Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill U Steven. He relates ASMR with music pleasure: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/why-music-makes-our-brain-sing.html.
- Bryson Lochte, a researcher studying in the Dartmouth College (US), began researching the human response to the ASMR for his senior honours: http://asmruniversity.com/2014/07/25/asmr-research-science-studies/.
- Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy (US). He has recently updated the conclusions of his theory called Origin Theory of ASMR 2.0: http://asmruniversity.com/origin-theory-of-asmr/.
To finish, I cannot avoid telling that this feeling reminds me strongly to cat’s (or other animal) purr, when even the most aggressive feline becomes so relaxed that he can barely move. Some of the theories moved in this direction and others compare it with the mother’s instinctive soft tickling toward their infants, so it can have an evolutionary explanation. As it was said before, there is still no scientific evidence on this phenomenon, but it won’t change much if people are constantly looking for new triggers and ASMRtist are gaining hundreds of new subscribers every day.
- NekoASMR. Crinkle sounds and soft speaking:
PROFESSIONAL ASMR ARTISTS
One of the things I was wondered before starting the small research for this article was if someone was actually making a living with ASMR. The simple answer is yes, but not only the mentioned Maria from GentleWhispering, with more than 400k subscribers, but many other YouTubers around the world. For instance, three or of my six interviewees recognize having enough revenues to live from it. In my opinion, this is fascinating and intriguing at the same time and it’s another sign that ASMR push some feelings in people. The main way of funding seems to be donations through platforms as Patreon or PayPal, which, in my opinion, it’s quite a fair way to make money.
I also have to say that making ASMR videos it’s not as easy as to appear in front of your webcam and whisper to your laptop’s internal micro. Many videos have image and sound very beautifully edited and materials are another matter. As Bekah from SoftyGaloshes said, a binaural microphone is ASMRtst’s main weapon, but it’s just the beginning for those that are taking it seriously, a good camera and headphones are almost imperative as well.
Leaving behind the technological props, almost every object can be used for creating ASMR sound. The most common ones can be paintbrushes, paper, plastic or wooden objects, but many ASMRtist are recognisable by some of their personal items. A good example is NekoASMR who declared that her small pink scissors are already quite popular: “When they appear, people always comment about them”. This probably happens because of the same reason why most ASMRtist tend to use similar backgrounds, colours or opening words. Fans like to feel a kind of familiarity and intimacy with their favourite ASMRtists. That’s related with the opinion of Caroline ASMR, who believes that, for some people, the mere thought of their favourite videos can trigger the ASMR feelings.