The clicking of finger nails. A breathy whisper. A woman applying makeup. Hands submerging into slime. The crunch and snap of biting into pickles. Millions of YouTube users seek out this seemingly mundane content to trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response.
Those who ascribe to ASMR say it delivers a full-body tingling, radiating from the head, which sends many into deep relaxation and feelings of well-being.
Spokane resident Jennifer McCain has been watching YouTube videos to trigger ASMR for three years, but she said she first had the response when she was young and her cousin was brushing her hair while speaking softly. At the time, McCain thought that everyone had the same response.
“It’s not constant tingles all the time,” McCain said. “Usually it’s just a pleasant, relaxing feeling through most of the video, and once or twice an occasional sound will trigger tingles.”
ASMR can be triggered by audio, visual and olfactory stimuli, but is often conflated with a more commonplace response known as frisson, which is experienced as pleasant goose bumps in response to various aesthetic experiences such as music or artwork. A key difference is that frisson is often linked to an emotional response.
“ASMR is frequently confused with frisson, those delightful chills, shivers, and goosebumps you get from music, an inspiring speech, riding a roller coaster, or from cold air on the back of your neck,” said Dr. Craig Richard, AMSR University founder.
A few members of the Spokane Symphony reported experiencing frisson on a semi-regular basis, unsurprising given their line of work.
Trish O’Connor, a soprano in the Spokane Symphony Chorale, said at a recent practice when the women were listening to the men’s group perform, everyone experienced frisson at once.
“They hit this certain chord where the basses were really low and it was just the coolest chord,” O’Connor said. “You could almost hear a collective gasp in the room when that certain chord was hit, and we just all looked at each other. … It’s almost like a bonding experience with musicians.”
Research by Mitchell Colver from Utah State University found a correlation between people who experience frisson and the personality characteristic “Openness to Experience,” which O’Connor said she positively identifies with.
Spokane resident Mark Harris said he experiences frisson most commonly in response to music, though he’s experienced it watching movies as well, most recently during a certain scene in “Avengers: Endgame.” Harris said when music causes frisson for him, it’s almost always music he is extremely familiar with.
“The guitar solo in ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd every time,” Harris said. “Even just saying that, I’m getting little goosebumps on my scalp right now.”
Though frisson is more common, ASMR is getting bigger by the day. How big? Try Super Bowl-sized. Michelob Ultra’s commercial starring Zoe Kravitz revolved around ASMR triggers.
In it, Kravitz whispered “Let’s all experience something together” into microphones framing her face. She drummed her finger nails on the glass of beer. The YouTube description of the commercial reads, “Experience ASMR with Zoe Kravitz, inspired by beer in its organic form.” The video has about 17 million views, and more than 98 million people tuned in for the 2019 Super Bowl.
W magazine also tried to capitalize on this trend by posting interviews with actresses Aubrey Plaza and Kate Hudson while they tried their hand at ASMR techniques.
“When I graduated college, I really wanted to work at Saturday Night Live,” Plaza, of sitcom Parks and Rec, whispered in her characteristic dead pan voice. “But the closest I could get was an audition for the page program. I just really like the uniform, I guess.”
The point of ASMR is not what you say, but how you say it.
Despite the widespread attention, the science behind ASMR is still budding. Swansea University researchers Emma Barratt and Nick Davis published one of the first studies in 2015: “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state.”
The peer-reviewed paper noted that participants who were susceptible to ASMR triggers experienced temporary relief of depression, stress and chronic pain. The paper also compared ASMR with a “state of flow,” which it described as increased focus and less awareness of time passing.
Not enough is known about why some people experience ASMR while others don’t, but Richard, who wrote the book “Brain Tingles,” said ASMR can be useful for treating insomnia.
“Research studies by us and others consistently show that many people report that ASMR is helpful for relaxation and falling asleep,” he said.
McCain said that she uses ASMR videos to fall asleep every night.
“I love it,” McCain said. “Those videos have dramatically improved my sleep quality and how fast I can fall asleep.”
The original ASMRist – the neologism for ASMR content creators – is Maria Viktorovna, a Russian woman behind the channel “Gentle Whispering.” Since its 2009 inception, Viktorovna has uploaded more than 200 videos. Presently, her channel has over 1.6 million subscribers, and her most popular video has 17 million views. In this video, Viktorovna touches the bristles of a wooden brush, brushes her hair and allows viewers to “experience the visuals and sounds of a humming steamy oil diffuser.”
McCain, who mainly watches “personal attention” ASMR videos such as that one, said Gentle Whispering is one of her favorites.
In her study, Barratt referenced the ASMR subgroup on Reddit, which at the time of publication, had 86,000 followers. Four years later, that number has grown by 100,000. Google delivers nearly 82 million results for an “ASMR” search. Barratt also listed popular ASMR YouTube channels, including Viktorovna’s. But not all ASMR content was created with that intention.
While some might be fans of the late Bob Ross’ PBS show because they enjoy watching him paint happy trees or bottle-feed his squirrel friend, some viewers trigger ASMR while listening to his calming voice, brushstrokes or knife scraping. In fact, many YouTube users have compiled clips from his show that often trigger ASMR.
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