If you’re like me, you have no idea what’s going on in the above YouTube clip. Six minutes of a pretty blonde woman who goes by GentleWhispering and looks like every kid’s favourite babysitter whispering to the camera in a light Eastern European accent and caressing it occasionally. It’s a little unsettling, almost like finding someone’s video diary and knowing immediately you weren’t supposed to watch it, and the tag “ASMR” doesn’t explain much, least of all why it has 125,000 views and more than 800 likes.
If, on the other hand, you’re one of the people the video was made for – one of those people who experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – you’ll probably find all six minutes incredibly satisfying, the video equivalent of a really nice, mellow kind of drug that leaves no aftertaste. You’ll want to hunt down the hundreds of other ASMR videos floating around the web: pretty young women talking softly and pretending to be travel agents; a pair of hands opening a box of Legos; a 12-minute long pretend-eye exam monologue with no video. That last one is probably the most boring thing I have ever seen on the internet. It has nearly 350,000 views and 850 likes.
ASMR is a tricky feeling to describe, and I can only talk about it secondhand. From what I understand from conversations with ASMRers, it’s a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine. Not everyone gets this feeling, and though some people can get the tingles through sheer force of will, most depend on external “triggers” to set them off. Triggers can include getting a massage or a haircut, or hearing someone talk in a soothing tone of voice (Bob Ross, the “let’s put a happy tree right here” painter from PBS, is a common trigger) or even just watching someone pay extremely close attention to a task, like assembling a model.
It’s not usually sexual – everyone who talked to me about ASMR mentioned that right off the bat – but like sexual turn-ons, different people have different things that set them off: the sound of lips smacking together, a cashier’s fake nails tapping on the register, your friend drawing on your hand with a marker.
Maria, aka GentleWhispering (she didn’t want me to use her last name), has been triggered by everything from accented whispers to being tickled when she was in kindergarten. During a Skype conversation I had with her, she described ASMR as feeling like “bubbles in your head”, and compared it to getting a scalp massage, but the sensation is on the inside. She went on: “It’s like a little explosion, and then just little sparkles and little stars going down [your back]. Depending on the strength of the trigger, it might just go into the top of the spine of the shoulders, but sometimes it goes down to your arms and legs and other parts. Mostly, if you get it in your leg, it’s really exciting!”
Maria is the reigning queen of the ASMR videos, with over 34,000 subscribers to her channel and 12 million views. She mostly speaks directly at the camera in her accented English, giving a Russian language lesson or pretending to be a physical therapist.
She makes a “slight income” from her channel views, but told me she feels guilty about it (“I’m not doing it for money, but I still get it”) and puts most of it back into her videos. She recently bought a 3D microphone, a key accessory for any ASMR video maker; it makes those fake haircuts feel so much more real – put on some headphones and you can hear the scissors snip around your ear while she makes small talk in the other.
Each video takes seven to ten takes for her to get right, and that’s after coming up with an idea, the props she wants to use and a script. And she watches her previous videos to refine her technique – she says she isn’t triggered by her own work, but can feel the moments that would trigger other people.
Maria’s success might also have something to do with the fact that, like most other whisperers, she is young, female and good-looking in a nonthreatening way. Generally speaking, head tingles and sex don’t mix (the “NSFW ASMR” section of Reddit hasn’t caught on), but physical attractiveness can’t hurt. As for the lack of male whisperers, Maria offered a fairly simple explanation: “If a guy is in front of the camera and whispering,” she said, “there aren’t many things he can do that won’t seem creepy.”
Some videos unintentionally cause the tingles – makeup tutorials are an ASMR goldmine, as are vlogs from people with deep, resonant voices. Other videos are more calculated. There’s a whole cottage industry of YouTubers, usually with “whisper” in their screen names, who have created hundreds of videos where they talk softly, or eat Oreos while tapping conspicuously on a mug.
Everyone has probably had the experience of falling into a trance at the drone of a teacher’s voice, or getting some pleasure from stroking his or her hands through a dog’s coarse fur, but ASMR seems to be much stronger than that. It’s hard to be more definite than,“This feeling sure is, um, something, and man people like those videos!” because there have been no official scientific studies on ASMR. When someone created a Wikipedia page for it, it was promptly struck down by sceptical Wiki editors who said the article “lacked scientific evidence”. (Don’t worry, the list of chess openings named after animals is still there.)
Still, enough people report experiencing roughly the same thing in response to roughly the same stimuli, tonnes of people continue to watch the videos, and there are over 22,000 subscribers to the ASMR section of Reddit. As the neuroscientist Steven Novella wrote in March, “It’s similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.” ASMR could fit into that same category as homicidal rages, hypnosis and religious fevers that cause people to speak in tongues – exceptional mental states that seem like bullshit unless you experience them, but are unquestionably “real.”
Most likely, people have been experiencing brain tingles throughout history – I’m picturing a filthy nomad warlord closing his eyes in pleasure as his concubine picks lice out of his hair, Catholics in the pews tingling over the measured recitation of Mass in Latin – but mostly kept it to themselves and some odd, private pleasure. Then came the internet and no one kept anything to themselves any more. People started discussing what they couldn’t describe as anything other than a “weird feeling” on health forums and realised they weren’t alone.
Back in 2008, a Yahoo! group called the Society of Sensationalists formed, with a somewhat vague manifesto: “All we have right now are questions and we need answers. We need help, not in the sense that we want to solve or cure this sensation but rather instead to learn what causes this.” People would find their way to these forum discussions by desperate internet searches for “weird head feeling” or “head tingles”, but the discussion remained confined to the forums until 2010, when Andrew MacMuiris started a blog called The Unnamed Feeling to work through the same questions all ASMRers were asking, such as, “What the hell is this?” and “Why does it happen to me?” and “Does it happen to you, too?”
By then, the feeling had a few different names: Attention Induced Head Orgasm, Attention Induced Euphoria, Attention Induced Observant Euphoria… Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response was a phrase coined by Jenn Allen, who founded the site asmr-research.org. “Autonomous” refers to the “individualistic nature of the triggers, and the capacity in many to facilitate or completely create the sensation at will”, Jenn told me in an email. “Sensory” and “response” are fairly obvious, and “meridian”, Jenn said, is a more polite term for “orgasm”. In any case, it certainly sounds official – as Jenn said, “Try explaining why you want money to study ‘goose looping’ or ‘brain orgasms.’”
Researching the causes behind the feeling have proved much more difficult than naming it. Jenn and her associates have found that ASMR is “astonishingly universal”, experienced by people of all ages across every continent. Most people get triggered first as children and carry it around throughout their lives, though some people, including Jenn, discovered the sensation later in life.
But what is it? That’s a trickier question, and one asked all over the ASMR-centric parts of the internet all the time. Some describe the brain tingles as a form of enlightenment. One member of the most popular ASMR Facebook group posited that animals experience ASMR-like sensations when they groom each other. Others have theorised that there’s a link between ASMR and Synesthesia (another little-understood mental phenomenon), while Karissa Ann Burgess, who is in charge of experimental research and data for asmr-research.org, told me she thought that ASMR was caused by “secretions from the pineal gland” in the brain, which is regarded as a “third eye” or even the soul by some people who believe in things like third eyes and souls. I even heard from Shaun Robertson, who doesn’t experience ASMR but was involved in the community for a time, that a few people believed that the condition was “the next stage of human consciousness.”
In the absence of any study with any kind of scientific rigor, you can’t prove or disprove anything. More pragmatically, it’s simply a good feeling. Latasha Bynum, an ASMRer who did a segment on the condition for her public access show in Inland Empire, California, sees ASMR as a kind of all-natural high, a method of relaxation that helped her deal with her insomnia and can help others, like a type of homeopathic medicine. “It’s free, you don’t have to go to the doctor, there are so many benefits,” she told me. “That’s what I really want to get across to everyone. You don’t have to take pills.”
But that old question asked on the Society of Sensationalists group is still unanswered: What causes this? The next step in the research would be to put an ASMRer in something like an fMRI machine, which can measure activity across regions of the brain. But conducting that kind of study would be expensive and tough to organise, considering the ASMR community is spread out all over the world. And even if we knew for sure what caused the tingles, there’s a deeper, simpler question – why does this make some people feel good in the first place?
This is where I have to throw up my hands and say I have no idea. I haven’t found anyone with an answer to that question, and if you know, please tell me. I will say that when I asked Maria where she thought the feeling came from, she had an explanation that made me, for the first time, wish I had ASMR too.
“I think it has to do with childhood,” she said. “Whenever your mother would treat you delicately, or your doctor or teacher would talk to you gently… The caring touch is the biggest trigger.”
Follow Harry on Twitter: @HCheadle