Crinkling paper. Nails tapping on a table. A soft voice. For most of us, these sounds aren't much more than your average background noise. But for some, sounds like these trigger a physiological phenomenon known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Community Voices Producer Lauren Shows begins the story with one of these triggers.
“Hello, dear friends. Good evening. So, this little spoon...I'm interested in spoons….”
The voice you're hearing belongs to a woman named Yang Haiying. In this YouTube video, she's filming a metal spoon, with a Mickey Mouse-like character stamped on it. She turns it over in her hands, delicately, and explains how she found it, at her mother's home in Beijing:
“So, where did I get it? It's buried in chicken powder, actually. Chicken flavoring, to make soup, to make chicken soup or chicken stir fry. This one is sold together with chicken powder.”
Just a second, Haiying. Would you say that one more time?
Every time she says those words. I get this amazing feeling. This beautiful, warm, delicious blanket of sensation. It starts in the top of my head, spreads down my neck and arms, into the tips of my fingers. The sensation is familiar to anybody who experiences Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Most folks who get the feeling, describe it the same way: a “brain tingling.”
The sensations ASMR produces are pure pleasure, and tend to produce a calming effect. Some who experience it use it to relax or get to sleep, others to help themselves focus. ASMR can be triggered by any number of sounds, usually soft and repetitive, or by watching someone complete a slow, deliberate task. For most of us, it's best when both are combined.
And how many of us are there? According to the internet, which is always accurate, there are thousands. And before we go any further, there is one thing about ASMR that every single one of us would like to make clear to you: it is definitely not sexual. We know how it sounds. We know you're not going to believe us. And that's why you've never heard of ASMR: because we've never told you.
Take my sister, Hayley, and me. We both have a memory of a summer when we were kids. We spent hours watching the same instructional video together over and over, a woman using modeling clay. We both agreed it made us feel amazing. Then we never talked about it again.
Until I called Hayley up for this piece. Her experience with discovering the term ASMR, and that she wasn't alone, is a familiar one to me, and to a lot of us in the ASMR community.
“I don't know,” Hayley says, “It never occurred to me that it might be a thing until I just decided to Google “tingly head,” or whatever it was I Googled. And that was the first time I found out it had a name, and that lots of people experienced it.”
The internet is the insatiable playground of any number of obscure appetites. So, it was only natural that this is where the ASMR community would make its home. YouTube hosts a bevy of content when it comes to ASMR, created by members of the community. These content-producers call themselves “whisperers.” To those of us who watch them, sometimes on a daily basis, they're essentially celebrities. One of the biggest stars in the ASMR world is Maria, or "GentleWhispering" as she's known on YouTube. Her videos run the gamut of ASMR fare: sound effects videos, whispered readings, and soft-spoken role plays, in which she pretends to be an eye doctor, a skin care expert, or a hairdresser, delicately explaining every step in her process, up close. Maria's YouTube channel has more than 90,000 subscribers, and her videos have more than 25 million views. Which is why I was totally stoked when she agreed to talk to me about how she got into making ASMR videos.
Maria says, “I'd been listening to videos for about a year before I started making my own videos. And I found this community because I was going through some stress and depression times, which actually helped me recover from a lot of my anxiety.”
Despite the thousands of people, including myself, who pine for every new video she produces, Maria says she doesn't think of herself as a celebrity. She makes ASMR videos, she says, because they helped her in a time of need, and she wants to give back.
“I get letters from military men who fight nightmares and watch these videos to calm down; firefighters, doctors, pilots, lawyers; working single moms; teenagers with some kind of anxiety problems,” Maria says. “All of them are just so sincere and so full of gratitude, you just can't help but get to the camera and make something good for them.
So what causes ASMR? As yet, there's really no answer. Science generally seems preoccupied with issues that don't involve people getting tingly in front of their computers. Even the term ASMR was made up by someone to replace the previous, less legitimate-sounding term for the phenomenon: brain orgasm. Again, not sexual.
But the fact that nobody knows what causes ASMR means we're less likely to tell our friends and family about it, since we can't explain it. It was only after I put out a query on Facebook that I found out I had two friends, Jeff and JD, who also experience ASMR.
I asked Jeff what the people in his life think about it. He said, “It's something that I haven't really been public about, until this interview.”
JD also said he'd never mentioned it to anyone in his daily, non-internet life, or for that matter, his internet life, “It's really weird to hear “ASMR Community.” It feels inherently private.”
My sister Hayley said she only recently told her husband about her predilection for late-night whisper indulgence. “I think he even came into the living room where I was on the computer, got up out of bed and said, ‘That's really creeping me out, could you turn that down?’” Hayley says, “And then at that point I told him, ‘Hey, I'm not a creep, this is, you know, something that relaxes me and gives me this tingly feeling.’”
I asked Hayley's husband, Ian, what he knew about ASMR. “Well, I think it's supposed to give you, like, some kind of sensation when you listen to it,” Ian explained, “Kind of like that feeling in your head...is that kind of right?”
My own husband, Anthony, has no qualms with sharing his opinion on the whole thing: “Atypical. Not usual.”
There is hope on the horizon for us: a study on ASMR is underway now at Dartmouth College. A student associated with the study posted a query for test subjects on the social entertainment site, Reddit, several months ago. Posting under the handle ‘blochte,’ the student had this to say: "Since these videos trigger a powerful response in people (for better or for worse) I was interested in seeing what regions of the brain they are activating." I got in touch with blochte via email, who said he'll be wrapping up his data analysis later this summer, but can't say much about his findings just yet.
Until then, all of us who experience ASMR will continue to commune, faceless, on the internet. We've got our headphones on, listening and waiting.