I recently spent several hours on a plane sitting beside a man who found a way to crunch on, slurp or vocalize every food he put in his mouth, including two airline meals and an honest-to-god vegetable tray from the airport. Even through my enormous headphones, I could sense that he was biting into something, which was awful, like death by a thousand baby carrots. So on a personal level, I’m zero percent into Spirit Payton’s pickle-chewing ASMR videos, but holy shit, a lot of people are.
The 47-year-old Houston resident has more than 500,000 subscribers between her YouTube channel ASMRTheChew and her Instagram account, and the videos of herself whispering as she bites into giant Vlasic dill pickles have gotten upwards of 10 million views. (She also eats other things, including marshmallows, candy apples, popcorn, Big Macs, peppermint candies and Cheetos, but the pickle videos are hands-down the most popular).
If you’re not among the ASMR-initiated, the acronym stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is a complicated way of describing certain sounds or auditory stimuli that can trigger tingling sensations in the back of your head and neck. ( The Guardian calls them “head orgasms.”) There has been very little scientific exploration into the phenomenon and, so far, only one research paper has been published about it.
In that 2015 study, two psychology grad students at Swansea University surveyed 475 people who are way into ASMR to determine what they felt and what gave them, like, auditory erections. The responses indicated that the most common triggers were whispering (75 percent), personal attention (69 percent), crisp sounds (64 percent) and slow movements (53 percent)—which brings us to Payton, who combines all of those things in her videos.
“The Pickle Lady,” as she’s known online, told ABC7 that her daughter introduced her to ASMR videos as a way to help with her chronic pain from a degenerative bone disease. "I"m basically almost a 80- to 90-year-old person on the inside," she said. "I was getting worse and I wasn't getting better and they told me the only thing they could do was make me comfortable." Her daughter gave her a pair of headphones, pressed ‘play’ on a video, and Payton said she immediately felt a sense of calm.
She continued to explore ASMR and felt like it helped her cope with her condition—she even stopped taking her prescription medication—so she felt compelled to make her own videos in an attempt to help others. That was almost three years and several hundred thousand subscribers ago.
“When I listen to a certain ASMR, I literally feel like my body is being lifted and I'm being healed,” she told The Fader. “So because I feel that, I purposefully go after sharing that because I want to help someone. I go after ASMR because I feel like the world is stressed out and people have been forgotten about, people can't afford some medication. People need help. They need to feel happy.”
And apparently help and happiness can sound like a stranger crunching on a dill pickle.