I’ve been watching videos of disembodied hands running potato peelers over bars of soap for 45 minutes. And I don’t know why.
This lost Sunday morning — a missed yoga class because I decided to check Instagram’s Explore section — is my introduction to the world of ASMR, a type of video you may have heard described as “oddly satisfying” or “soothing.”
If you, too, fall down the, you’ll run into a wide range of videos from people cutting into crunchy kinetic sand, squishing slime, peeling bars of soap, scratching or tapping objects and — one of the most popular — whispering into microphones. You can even watch someone crunch into a pickle if that’s your thing. There’s also role-playing (stay with me) in which the ASMRtists, as they call themselves, pretend you’re at an appointment for a haircut or checkup.
The internet is weird.
These videos, though, have been crawling out of whatever strange little corner you think they live in as more people realize watching and listening to these things makes them feel kinda good. Tingly, in fact. And not like you’ve sat on your foot for too long or got a bit too ambitious with that flight of stairs. These tingles radiate from the back of your neck or head and spread out through your body. The tingles are often described as pleasurable or relaxing. The sensation makes some people sleepy.
Lots of folks like this stuff. So much so, more than 5 million Instagram posts are tagged #ASMR. More than 10,000 Instagrammers follow an account devoted to eating honeycombs. IKEA produced an ASMR ad of someone smoothing and scratching bed sheets (2.2 million views). And W Magazine even has a video series of celebrities trying their hands at ASMR. Cardi B pets a rug.
“People who don’t experience ASMR will still watch the videos because they might find whispering relaxing,” says Beverley Fredborg, who’s co-written research papers on ASMR and is working on her Ph.D. at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Or maybe it’s trendy.”
The history of ASMR is both long and short. On the one hand, online discussions around the sensation have been around since 2007. The first videos appeared in 2009 and, in 2010, a woman named Jennifer Allen coined the term “autonomous sensory meridian response,” saving countless fans, creators and researchers from the more popular term “brain orgasm,” which doesn’t sound like something you want to tell your mother about.
On the other hand, if you talk to folks in the ASMR community, many think back to the soothing effect of a substitute teacher’s voice or the way they felt as their mother braided their hair. TV painter Bob Ross, with his “happy little trees,” gets mentioned a lot.
Only a handful of studies have been conducted into ASMR, so there’s a limit on what we know about why some people are drawn to videos of steel wool being rubbed over a microphone.
Craig Richard (whose book Brain Tingles describes itself as “a user-friendly guide to ASMR — the stress-reducing, sleep-inducing, tingly sensation you have to try!”) says ASMR is about personal attention. Your brain registers someone with “a caring disposition” doing something for you or showing you something that’s completely nonthreatening and safe.
When you’re safe, you trust, and when you trust, you relax. You know that those hands you’re watching are too busy crushing a block of floral foam spewing glitter to, you know, stab you in the back.
“We’re born with this ability to be soothed by people who are caring for us,” says Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University who also runs the site ASMR University.
Last year, Richard co-authored a study that looked at the MRIs of people as they watched ASMR videos. The study found that ASMR activated the same areas of the brain that are engaged during personal grooming or when we’re being cared for.
From there, Richard extrapolates that ASMR releases the same hormones and neurotransmitters that go to work when parents, kids, romantic partners, friends and even pets bond emotionally. Endorphins trigger oxytocin (the fabled love hormone), and there’s probably a dash of dopamine in there somewhere to make you want to watch another video.
It’s not what you think
ASMR might not be for everyone. At first, I think that includes me.
Whispering videos make me want to crank up the volume on my laptop. Wet mouth sounds? Get away from me.
Slinky toys are a different story, though. I can listen to someone playing with a Slinky all day. The plastic makes a light, short, crisp sound that makes me aware of the back of my neck. And when the maker of fastASMR taps on a cardboard box of tea with her nails, I’m ready to grab a nap under my desk.
Suddenly, the whispering isn’t annoying anymore.
But for something that’s supposed to be so soothing, ASMR gives some people the wrong impression.
When talking to friends about the story, I ran into the occasional comment that goes something like this: ASMR — is that a sex thing?
No, friend, it isn’t.
But I get it — sitting at my desk in our open-concept newsroom, I feel a little self-conscious watching videos of FredsVoice, an ASMRtist who gives off some serious Thor vibes. I keep my mouse on the browser tab for my email in case someone tunes into the blond, muscled dude on my screen, whispering sweet nothings into my headphones.
Maybe I should have worked from home.
The fans I talk to have similar trouble broaching the subject of tingling with friends and family.
“Look, I’m not into some weird kinky thing,” Meggan Harat, who lives in Pittsburgh, says she has to tell friends. “I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not that.”
Erin Hamm of Sellersburg, Indiana, who likes videos of people folding towels, just doesn’t bother anymore.
“It’s all kind of weird to explain,” Hamm says. “People think the wrong thing.”
Even the creator behind ASMR Soap Queen (who asked to be referred to as Z.E.) hasn’t told her friends she spends a day each week cutting up soap.
The discomfort of explaining these videos could prove to be a challenge for the ASMR community. Nearly every ASMRtist I talk to is quick to tell me they don’t deal in fetish. But the internet is the internet, and already there are channels trying to sexify ASMR. Lucy (a professional name), who runs Creative Calm, tells me there’s concern that this could tarnish the reputation of the broader community and even affect how videos are monetized.
For the time being, it seems like there’s an army of ASMRtists out there whispering, tapping, slicing, even baking cookies (hello again, FredsVoice), pumping YouTube and Instagram full of videos designed to get you to chill.
These creators aren’t just casually making videos, either. Susie (a pseudonym) devotes the spare room in her apartment to producing the fastASMR channel on YouTube. She’s stocked up on mics and props and panels of acoustic foam.
Six years ago, Susie thought to herself, “It doesn’t hurt to make one video and upload it. If it doesn’t go well, I don’t ever have to make another one.”
Her YouTube channel now has more than 114 million views, and she’s discovered she likes the process of making the videos as much as others like watching them.
Where ASMR goes from here is hard to say. Trends ebb and flow — floral foam is frowned upon, by the way, but crushing chalk seems to be having a moment.
Many creators keep at it because viewers tell them the videos help them cope with anxiety and make it easier for them to sleep.
Justin Kauflin, for example, is a jazz musician and composer who travels around the world. He’s also totally blind, which throws off the circadian rhythms that tell his body when it’s day or night. It’s a tough combination, especially when he’s on tour. Listening to ASMR videos can help him fall asleep while traveling.
“I’ve always tried to find different ways to help me sleep when my body doesn’t want to,” he tells me over Skype.
Richard hopes there one day will be clinical studies exploring whether ASMR could be rolled into treatment programs for stress and sleep issues.
But regardless of whether ASMR ever gets the scientific seal of approval, tingles will still be on tap whenever you need them.
This story appears in the spring issue of CNET Magazine.