WTF is ASMR?

must share my newest guilty pleasure.

Picture this: It’s late at night and everyone at home is in bed. I have the covers up to my nose and I’m clutching my iPhone, squinting in its bright light. I set the video volume at its lowest notch, keeping what I’m watching a nearly silent secret. I typically make my viewing habits private, but this particular kind of video is something I could hardly begin to explain to anyone. Eventually, I’m watching these videos with earbuds on long airplane rides, in the car and even between classes. When I had a roommate I would always roll away from her direction in my bed, disguising my little habit.

Of course this sounds like I developed a porn addiction, but what I’m watching is less explicit and probably a little more bizarre. It’s ASMR.

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response; the body’s curious reaction to certain sensations. Think back to the times in your childhood when grandma tickled your back while reading you a story– or perhaps when your significant other traces circles on your shoulders at bedtime. That tingly, static-y feeling when your hairdresser rubs your scalp at the rinse station? That’s ASMR. And evidently, it can be achieved through audiovisuals.

Like most things I discover on the internet, I clicked on a YouTube video with “ASMR” in the title late at night without much forethought. I thought my laptop speaker was defecting because I couldn’t hear anything but scratchy noises. Upon further inspection, I realized I was watching a 40-minute video of nothing but soft tapping noises. What?

Again, think about those times of spine-tingly sensations brought on by physical touch. Are there any noises you may hear that are also particularly relaxing? For example, when I curl up for a nap, my cat usually follows with a motor-like purr. When I’m resting in the middle of the day, I often hear landscapers mowing grass in the distance. Raindrops on the roof have always been unusually exciting the summer nights I can’t find sleep. It seems that many have agreed these everyday noises produce some sort of euphoric effect. Out of the masses who love these noises, a niche community on YouTube arose and decided to explore an alternative means of relaxation.

ASMR YouTube videos are focused on the specific noises– or triggers, as they are referred to in the community– that viewers find soothing. When these noises–like tapping, clicking or scratching– are recorded by highly-sensitive microphones, they can bring about the familiar tingly sensations on the scalp, back and neck. Therefore it is not unlikely to see titles like “60 minutes of Tingling!” or “I Help You Tingle” on an ASMR channel.

Like any other subculture, the ASMR community has its own standards and jargon– so a casual YouTube viewer isn’t in the wrong for being sketched out at the sight of those titles. But ASMR videos have blown up in the past year– and the wide variety of video themes keeps getting wider. Triggers include glass tapping, nail filing, typing on keyboards, mouth sounds, soft whispering, mumbling and even eating sounds. Quite literally anything you can think of there is an ASMR video of it.

That’s where the ASMR community goes from scientific to entertaining. Often ASMR videos are role-play scenarios in which the ASMRtist speaks directly to you, the camera. Typically, these scenarios are relaxing in nature– a mock spa session or a makeup consultation. But not always. When I say ASMRtists are doing the absolute most creatively, I mean it:

Hilarious, right? When I saw my first few ASMR videos (that crept into theatrical production territory), I thought the idea was completely bonkers and creepy. But I quickly realized how popular this brand of YouTube video was becoming; some ASMRtists near 1 million subscribers and receive hundreds of thousands of views on their uploads. Soon enough I discovered the brilliance of this type of content creation.

With the rapid growth of internet culture, YouTubers are quickly becoming celebrities in their own right. It’s easy to forget that someone making weekly 7-minute videos is still a regular person–not the internet sensation their views make them out to be. There is an earnest nature about ASMR videos that popular YouTubers lack. Essentially, ASMRtists are providing a service to their audiences; they are masters of relaxation ready to offer their talents to anyone who clicks. The idea they are here to help you also resonates on a deeper comfort level than just preparing for bed.

As top ASMRtist Taylor, or ASMR Darling, said in an interview with Shane Dawson, her viewers may not always achieve tingles, but many of them seek the affection and attention that ASMR videos often provide. The antithesis of stress is relaxation, therefore ASMR audiences are looking to unwind in major ways and claim that these YouTube videos can go so far as to relieve depression, anxiety and insomnia.

Corrina Rachel of ASMR Massage Psychetruth, an ASMR branch of a health and wellness YouTube channel, graciously explained the positivity of ASMR videos. To loosely quote her whispered words:

So much of what we get from these videos is the idea that there are compassionate people in this world… It answered a need in my heart just to hear someone speak to you in a kind way. A lot of what we get from the television, advertising, movies and radio are people yelling at us. It’s fast, it’s crazy, it’s intense, it’s loud. But not this.

And, once I opened my mind to something completely new, I understood what she meant. I’ve always been the type of person to keep the TV on all night for background noise. But that constant stimulation night after night does affect my sleeping patterns. It was nice to have media in my life that I didn’t feel obligated to stay awake for in moments of exhaustion. ASMR really came to my rescue during midterms and finals. As much as I swear by multitasking, listening to music and studying at the same time absolutely shot my focus. At points in our hectic lives, which are full of bright lights and booming noises, it’s necessary to take these quiet breaks for ourselves. My break comes from ASMR.

So if you’re nervous about clicking on to an ASMR video, just give it a try. Presently, mental health is at the forefront of health care conversations. Making initiatives for relaxation are perfect strides in self care. And that’s nothing to be ashamed about. I’ve had a bit of fun watching my friends’ reactions to their first ASMR video. I’ll sling my iPhone into their hands and say hey watch this!

A day or two later some will report back to me with a chuckle, “that actually worked! I could feel it!”

The ASMR movement has gained plenty of notoriety on platforms like Cosmopolitan and Bustle. W Magazine even started a new series of celebrities attempting their own ASMR videos, where stars like Kate Hudson and Ashley Graham play with scissors and whipped cream. Those videos air on the side of spoofs, but it’s still satisfying to see ASMR go from a specialized sect of the internet to a trending topic.

This article would not be complete without sharing my own personal ASMR triggers: lid opening, latex gloves, finger fluttering, and silicone ear microphone massage.

So, what are your ASMR triggers?