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Welcome to ASMR - The Audio Phenomenon That Makes Your Entire Body Tingle

The sounds of crinkling crisp packets and lighting matches have become an established art form. We spoke to its leading stars.

Does the sound of freshly Carmex-ed lips smacking together give you goosebumps? Have you ever bust a nut over the crinkling of an empty packet of Monster Munch? Can the relaxing rumbles of a distant train make you melt like a solero in a toaster?

If you answered yes to any of the above then you could be blessed with the gift of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, aka ASMR; a cultural phenomenon-cum-pseudo-science which has been gathering traction online since about 2010, but which has arguably existed since The Dawn of Humans.

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To explain ASMR - a unique and pleasurable sensation experienced when listening to particular sounds - it’s best going to the people who live by it. One dedicated fan tells me it’s a like the fizz you get in champagne and another says it puts him in a trance-like state: “I think a simple way of explaining it would be to imagine that you were having pulses of electric at the beginning of each hair that grew out of your head, and you could feel every single one of them.”

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Lifelong ASMR believer Andrew Katz explains that it provides him with intense calm and serenity. “I feel an intimate connection with the person who triggers it (entirely non-sexual), so that my connection with them increases, and my awareness of the outside world decreases. It’s not dramatic, but it’s significant."

Most people admit to having had their first ASMR experience before the age of 13 and traditional “triggers” vary from relaxing hand movements to unboxing packages to something far more conceptual, with the sound of soft whispering being a very common feature. This is a thriving and creative world, where a video of a woman quietly pretending to be a intergalactic travel agent can rack up 2.1million views on YouTube. The end result to watching or listening to these clips is almost always the same; it feels like you’re wearing a magical cloak made of tingles. Or, so I’ve been told.

YouTube user ASMRrequests in her highly rated sci fi themed series

ASMR covers the full sensory spectrum but a large majority of its "stimuli" are auditory. There’s a clutch of current electronic artists who have recently taken inspiration from ASMR. On “Lonely at the Top”, a track off her new album, Holly Herndon samples the clicks and whispering voice of ASMR star Claire Tolan, and Herndon has declared her own ASMR trigger to be the sound of fingers tapping on an iPhone. London’s Helm, aka Luke Younger, uses a recording from an ASMR video on his new LP, Olympic Mess. “With ASMR," he explains, "the interesting thing is that it stimulates in a way which isn't sexual, yet I had seen comments on these videos from people who had hi-jacked them for some sort of sexual use / purpose… which is why the vocal I used is treated in the way it is - to add some kind of ambiguity to the gender." Even Deadmau5 recently employed the talents of GentleWhispering – the Taylor Swift of ASMR – on his track, “Terrors in my Head”.

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And within the ASMR community there exists a whole host of ASMRists who have been experimenting with new age-y ambient soundscapes, predominantly with the aim of meditation and relaxation in mind. Some of the most forward-thinking of these are practically hanging off the coattails of sound art and pushing the envelope as far as Bristol. Or Wales.

Cardiff’s own ASMR Andy has been rated by Wire magazine for his projects, which include taking MIDI files of classical pieces like Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”, slowing the tempo right down, then, instead of assigning instruments to each of the MIDI tracks, he plays samples of frisson-inducing noise: heartbeats, ice cracking, wind and rain.

Another artist, who goes by the name Crysknife007, employs meditative samples of space and spaceship sounds, acquired from NASA, to make “deep bass relaxation noise” which can be bought on Bandcamp. Listen to this record at night while looking up at a starry sky and you will feel like the last pineapple ring in the cosmic punchbowl of life. Another artist, Myopia ASMR, has released a digital album called “Ultimate Tingles Collection”, a title that would raise eyebrows if found in your gran's CD rack.

Like all the best and worst things in life, ASMR pretty much began on Reddit, and over 100,000 people now subscribe to the "ASMR Sounds That Feel Good" community; a space where tingle-heads can seek validation, support, and feast on a banquet of weird and wonderful YouTube videos. People even share their own personal trigger videos, which can range from really specific things like Ainsley Harriott’s cooking, to really boring ones like professional bike fits.

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There is one, of ASMRer BlissRelaxation wearing a VEGANgeles t-shirt, whilst eating a bowl of gluten free Cinnamon Graham’s with coconut water, that must be the most #2015 video currently on the Internet. “It’s as yummy as it sounds listening to it be eaten. Nice and crunchy and delicious. The bowl is beautiful too,” writes one commenter.

Tony Bombino is one of my personal favourites – I particularly like his unboxing video of global foods. He is among the 40 artists who have contributed to the new SILKASMR app, which will be available on the App Store before the month is out. It was designed by Dr. Craig Richard, of ASMR University (who, unlike poop scavenger ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith, is actually a real doctor, with a PHD and everything) and features over 200 "relaxing audio tracks". So the good news is that you can now become an ASMR DJ, make banging mixes, and have a widely prescribed app ready to take your submissions.

Tony Bombino crunching on a cracker, one of his greatest performances

Of course, as with anything that has ever come into contact with the internet, there are some pretty #NSFW areas of ASMR, for the smutty and sordid, but it’s important to note that however carnal ASMR may be in its essence, it doesn’t necessarily come from a sexual place. “An attractive woman holding up a shoe can be a sexual video for a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean the shoe is sexual,” explains Dr. Richard, neutering a gladiator sandal in one swift statement. “It just means that if you put someone the viewer finds attractive in front of them it can be sexual. But I do think there’s something behind ASMR which increases the chance of that happening, and that if ASMR is tapping into our bonding/neurobiology, if you’re getting more relaxed and feeling bonded with them, a lot of that is the first step to getting comfortable with someone sexually.” There is also a convincing element of self-care to ASMR which means it can be used to help treat disorders like anxiety, depression and insomnia, although there is no stonewall scientific proof to back that as of yet. On YouTube you will find thousands of ASMR videos, but every cultural phenomenon has its megastars and ASMR is no different. GentleWhispering’s (seen below) 6-minute video of her picking a hairbrush (below) is like the “Call Me Maybe” of the ASMR charts and role play specialist Heather Feather has nearly 300,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel.

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The more serious and more committed ASMRtists have all splashed their cash on top-of-the-range binaural microphones, or ‘dummy head microphones’ (see below). These are basically microphones that pick up sound from the angles human ears would, and can be priced at anything from $400 - $3000.

“Every sound that you hear in the world is coming through your ears; your ears are a certain shape and they channel that sound in a certain way,” explains Dr. Richard. “So if I recorded something with one microphone and played it to you, you’d understand it, but if I recorded something with two microphones and put them inside of something shaped like a human ear, then that channels the sound to be hyper realistic.”

A dummy head microphone in action, recording the lighting of matches (via)

But don’t hold your breath for the ‘science bit’, because there isn't one yet. The sensation has no real in depth studies to back it up, to conclusively explain why it does what it does, which is kind of the most appealing and bewildering aspect of the entire genre. It just does, but who knows why. So, will ASMR ever be enshrined by fact? “An MRI scan is a great way to show that the brain is having a specific kind of response to ASMR,” explains Dr. Richard. “But to show that it’s therapeutic you would need to do clinical trials where you are recruiting patients and recording everything from their psychological responses through measured devices through perhaps to biological experiments when you’re measuring changes in neuro transmitters.”

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Dr. Richard has been gathering data in an ongoing research project online and has so far accrued 10,000 responses from over 80 countries. As it stands, all ASMR evidence is still anecdotal but since Jennifer Allen first coined the term back in 2010, the online community has grown from the moss that lurks in the Internet’s dark corners to a flourishing meadow of popularity and authenticity. The first ever ASMR convention will take place in California this September, where Dr. Richard will be presenting his research, and the community even boasts celebrity supporters in the likes of Pixies/Breeders legend Kim Deal.

It seems like the next step for ASMR is to up their game to live shows. “We're getting there,” UK ASMRtist Emma WhispersRed (in action below) tells me over email. “I have been talking with a company that want to put one on in London and there will be live sessions going on at the convention. I'm sure it will be more of a 'thing' in time.”

ASMR might look and feel a bit like a VHS your strange Aunty's druid boyfriend might stick on when you're round for tea, but there is an authenticity and artistry that has cultivated within this phenomenon since its conception that's kinda hard to disregard. These days we’re constantly bombarded with theories and sentiments about how culture is stuck in a perpetual cycle of repetiton and "retromania". That monkeys at a typewriter would inevitably eventually write Hamlet and that every single composition we ever hear is the same old notes in a different order. But ASMR genuinely presents itself as something altogether new. By bridging music and sound with visuals and sensations, ASMR makes you feel like you’re hearing an entire new universe of artistic possibility gently ripping open before your very eyes and ears. And as artist like Holly Herndon and others begin to embrace it, the wormhole just gets wider.

Who knows where it could go next… Oculus VR capitalising on a specialist ASMR gaming market for virtual sensory experiences? A rash of Shoreditch-based, ketamine-fuelled ASMR club nights? ASMR relaxation tents at festivals or, better, ASMR stages curated by all your favourite ASMRtists? ASMR remixes of overplayed pop songs that make you see them in a whole new light by bringing every hair on your body into the experience? The power of the Internet - and those tingles - knows no bounds. But if you’re lucky enough to experience ASMR, at least now you can find some solace in the fact that you’re not alone.

You can follow April on Twitter.