It wouldn’t be all that surprising if you’d never heard of ASMR. Aside from being one of YouTube’s most active and ascendant subcultures, it’s also very, very quiet.
ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is an online phenomenon that finds an entire community of YouTubers employing all sorts of gentle sonic and visual cues to “trigger” a range of euphoric sensory responses, including a tingling sensation that spreads across the scalp and down the neck. In the simplest terms, they dig sounds that give them the willies.
Thousands of “whispering videos” form the foundation of ASMR content, with speakers typically hovering close to their binaural mikes, speaking in hushed tones, but really working the plosives, sibilants, and fricatives of speech for their various ear-tickling textures. (That may explain why so many ASMR posters adopt exotic accents or stick to highly consonant gibberish in their videos.)
But ASMR “triggers” take many forms: one listener may thrill to the scissory scrapes and crisp clips of an hourlong virtual haircut; another might crave the extra crinkly sound of newspapers from 1963; another might be all set with a 10-minute sonic immersion of some dude creepily breathing and moving around in a starchy dress shirt. One ASMR poster discovered her audience really enjoyed the word “stipple,” so she’s taken to dropping a “stipple-stipple-stipple” in every now and then. (“I always come here for stipple-stipple,” said one satisfied commenter.)
ASMR has existed online in some form since 2007 – when posts about “weird sensations” and “attention induced head orgasms” (AIHO) started spreading like goosebumps across health forums (eventually codifying as a living, heavy-breathing community with a Facebook group in 2010). A spike of recent interest in the phenomenon has generated an unlikely buzz (and an unpleasant one if you’re the type who would rather listen to a girl eat cheesecake). About 90,000 people subscribe to the dedicated ASMR subforum on Reddit, and the ASMR Requests channel on YouTube (where users can experience custom ASMR wish fulfillment) has nearly 200,000 subscribers. There’s even an International ASMR Day on April 9.
(I found out about it while watching one of the new episodes of Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s fantastic Vimeo series, “High Maintenance,” where the protagonist weed dealer delivers to an ASMR creator, who strokes pine cones and the bristles of hair brushes to her viewers’ delight.)
But where does it come from? There’s no real science behind ASMR, though it hasn’t stopped scientific-sounding sites from popping up on the subject, like ASMRUniversity and ASMRLab. For one thing, there’s no universal trigger; for every ASMR tingle-chaser, there are others who are wholly repulsed or even aggravated by sounds like food-chewing and nail-clipping (those people may suffer from misophonia, or hatred of particular sounds).
The late TV painter Bob Ross may have been an unintentional early ambassador of ASMR. Many of us spent years allowing his gentle voice to guide us through the creation of his tranquil landscapes, his choppy brush stamping out “happy little trees,” his paint knife gingerly scraping the surface of the canvas, his denim shirt crumpling with every motion. This is the stuff of ASMR dreams (which are apparently quite lucid). And indeed, he’s become an unofficial patron saint of the movement in the form of hundreds of archived clips.
If you can get past the initial weirdness of listening to the whispers of an unknown woman as she crumples a shirt, or watching 20 minutes of wordless flipping through random books and magazines, it’s possible to understand the appeal of ASMR, tucked in between many complex layers (which, I imagine, would sound amazing to peel back very slowly and deliberately).
Amidst the promotional noise and visual racket of YouTube, ASMR videos create a space that’s jarringly tranquil. As a viewer, your attention is heightened (and lengthened). You experience an illusion of direct eye contact, a sense of proximity, a deep concern with intangible details, and a pantomime of tenderness. (“Your skin is so soft, so silky smooth. Your whole face is just perfect,” says user GentleWhispering while stroking the side of the lens like your cheek.)
ASMR takes the strange, distant intimacy of the Internet and distills it down to its most basic technological, psychological, and physiological components. That so much of ASMR culture is expressed through various role plays of life’s everyday intimacies – from eye exams (where the pencil against the pad factors in like a main character) to makeup consultations (so many brushes!), to cologne shopping (which may be attempts to trigger some bonus olfactory responses) — suggests that the chill isn’t the only thrill.
It’s tempting to think of ASMR as some sort of fetish, with human closeness functioning as the taboo at its core. Perhaps ASMR is a way of reimagining our digital connectivity, a way of hacking a system that brings us together by keeping us apart, a neurophysical remedy to our fractured sense of real-life engagement with each other.
Then again, once you observe 20 minutes of ASMR playtime restricted exclusively to materials related to the sinking of the Titanic, or sit through the epic 40-minute unboxing of one man’s dinosaur excavation playset (the cardboard! the cellophane! the scraping!), it also seems possible that ASMR has a lot more to do with individual weirdness than collective comfort.
Despite what some may see as an insurmountable creep factor, ASMR is an example of how the Internet can assemble just about any scattered fascinations into something like a community. As Bob Ross, who kept his voice as soft as his trees, once assured his attentive pupils, “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.