In a strange corner of the internet, a woman is brushing her hair and whispering softly into the camera.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says warmly. “Let me just confirm your appointment… That’s great!” she exclaims. “Follow me this way.” The role playing continues. She is playing the part of a hairdresser while the viewer is her client and, somehow, her most popular videos have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.
Confused and a little creeped out, I follow the links on her YouTube channel and find videos of a similar nature. In one, she gently lists the monotonous details of her day. Another is a role play of a dental appointment, while another is simply a closeup of her hands as she taps, scratches, and rustles some paper.
Yet the initial absurdity fades as I realised a relaxed tingly sensation has overtaken my body.
No, this is not a new type of sexual fetish. In fact, other than a few rare exceptions, there are no sexual connotations at all.
The videos are designed to trigger a physical reaction known as ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s typically described as a tingling sensation that begins at the top of your head and travels through the rest of your body, provoking a state of deep relaxation. Some describe it as a meditative state, similar to the feeling you get before you fall asleep. “For me, ASMR has two distinct characteristics,” said 18-year-old Sarah Stegeman from Pennsylvania, USA, who watches ASMR videos almost every day. “It feels like a pleasant, soothing pressure around the back and the top of the head, and also the famous tingles that feel similar to when you get a chill and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. When I am deep in an ASMR session the muscles in my arms and legs relax as well, and it puts me in a very tranquil state.”
Different stimuli will trigger the response in different people, hence the wide variation of ASMR content found online. Triggers include whispering, tapping, scratching, running water and personal attention role playing, such as the hairdressing scenario described above.
Many people experience this feeling from childhood, without knowing what it is or that it has a name. “My first experience of ASMR was watching my mother petting one of our cats as a child,” said Sarah. “It was such a slow, gentle, caring movement that would give me a very pleasant feeling in my head. I didn’t think much about it until I discovered the internet phenomenon of ASMR many years later as a young adult. I know now that it is a type of visual ASMR, which I can also experience from other gentle hand movements.”
These days, there is a whole community on YouTube dedicated to the creation of ASMR-inducing videos. Luke Wilson from BlackMaleASMR has been making ASMR videos since December 2012, but first experienced the sensation when he was 3-years-old. “I was at school playing doctor with one of my female classmates,” he said. “We had an old Fisher-Price Medical Kit, and my classmate was pretending to check my blood pressure with the toy blood pressure cuff that came with the kit. While she was checking my blood pressure, she was speaking to me in a calm smooth, and soft voice. Her voice, mixed with the sound of the blood pressure cup’s bulb and the personal attention she was giving me, put me into a deep state of relaxation and caused my entire body to go numb! I felt like I was in some type of trance. I was so weak that I could barely move or speak. My mind went blank. I was immediately addicted to that feeling and I never wanted to escape it.”
Luke began making ASMR videos after a number of people commented on his soothing voice. People would tell him his voice was “so relaxing” and “I can’t focus because of your voice.” Initially he was confused, even slightly insulted by the comments. Then he stumbled upon some ASMR videos online and was transported back to the feeling he had first experienced as a 3-year-old. He immediately understood why people were constantly commenting on his voice. “I figured that since my voice was already doing it, then I would make ASMR videos with the sole purpose of triggering ASMR in people,” he said.
“I was extremely nervous when I put my first video on my ASMR channel. I assumed that I wouldn’t be good enough, that no one would take me seriously, and that people would think I’m crazy.” Luke said he was surprised by the large amount of support he received from the ASMR community.
Subscribers often tell Luke his videos calm them before a test at school, alleviate their anxiety symptoms or help them get to sleep at night. “This might be difficult to believe,” he said. “But a couple of people have told me that some of my videos have helped keep them from committing suicide. I was shocked when I first received a message like that.”
Not everyone experiences ASMR, however, and scientific research on the subject is extremely limited – its existence is purely anecdotal. “Is it real?” neurologist Steve Novella wrote. “In this case, I don’t think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is. There are a number of people who seem to have independently… experienced and described the same syndrome with some fairly specific details. In this way 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.”
But whether or not ASMR is scientifically proven, its existence is very real to ASMRtists, as they’re known in the community, and the millions of people who are watching these videos on a regular basis. – Victoria Kerridge
Top screenshot from asmrrequests’ YouTube video.