What could make more than a million strangers tune in to watch a Russian woman fold a stack of towels or lead thousands more to watch an hour long video of a hairdryer blowing aimlessly into a microphone?
The answer is ASMR or ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’, a pleasant tingling sensation that begins in the head and scalp and makes its way through the body, typically triggered by some kind of sight or sound.
Think of it like the ‘goosebumps’ sensation you get when listening to your favourite song but far more acute and according to some ASMR fans, far more intense too. Just over a year ago, I had my first exposure to the world of ASMR. One night, when struggling to get to sleep, I searched on YouTube for relaxing music and came across a video of a person tapping their fingernails on a wooden box.
That’s it, just fingernails tapping on a box. It had several hundred thousand views. Straight away I knew had to learn more about the ASMR world and the extraordinary online subculture it had spawned, with its millions of devoted followers, extensive list of bespoke terminologies and dedicated team of ‘ASMRtist’ content creators. A whole subgenre ready for exploring.
At first glance, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to watch an ASMR video. Some involve fingernails tapping on a plastic or wooden surface like the one I had first seen, while others involve scrunching up paper or roleplaying as a doctor or a hairdresser.
Some of these things probably aren’t by themselves that uncommon on the ‘stranger side’ of YouTube but what makes these videos so initially intriguing is the huge number of viewers they attract.
That tapping video now has more than 2.7 million views, whilst one of the most popular ASMR videos online – a 16 minute collection of ‘3D sounds’ – has amassed nearly 14 million views on YouTube alone. What all of these videos have in common – apart from their staggering popularity – is that for some people, watching them triggers that tingling sensation and helps them to relax.
Maria, who calls her self GentleWhispering on YouTube, is the ASMRtist behind the 3D sounds video and arguably the most popular ASMR content creator online with over 540,000 subscribers and nearly 170 million views. She says the techniques used in the videos help the watcher feel a personal connection to the creator and it’s that sense of intimacy that helps them to relax.
“It creates a feeling for the viewer that they’re actually present there with me while I’m doing it,” she said. “That feeling, I think, is just a comfortable feeling of someone taking care of you and putting all of their energy and attention into you.
“As we get older, that’s not always an experience we get to have very often so I think it can be a very pleasant feeling for people and it helps put them in a sort of safe place where they can feel comfortable to relax.
“ASMRtists like me, we just research the kinds of things people like in real life but we try to do it in a more exaggerated way to introduce those same triggers in a more concentrated environment.”
This attempt to bring in real-life influences has led to a huge array of different themes and trigger stimuli being used by content creators and this in turn, has created
other separate branches within the ASMR community where users are able to share and connect over individual triggers and creators. As a result, sites such as reddit’s ASMR sub-forum r/ASMR have been used to create a hub for ASMR users and content providers and helped galvanise a strong online community of users who are able to search out and enjoy exactly the kind of ASMR that works for them.
Glasgow-based student and ASMR fan James, 21, said he uses the videos to help him relax when he’s stressed out with exams or after a long day at work and that ASMR helps him to ‘defuse’. “It’s been great for me in dealing with stress,” he said.
“I don’t always watch them but at least a few times a week I’ll fall asleep listening to an ASMR video.
“They help me to relax and help me to switch off from whatever I’ve got going on. It’s a really great way to get your brain to switch off. It’s sort of like meditation. Some people do meditation, I do ASMR.”
Currently, however, there is very little scientific research into what triggers ASMR and what kind of value it could really have for those who struggle with stress and sleep disorders but it does now look as if that could change in the near future. Already, some doctors and psychologists have begun to look at the ASMR phenomenon to see what can be learned from its techniques and practices. Tom Hostler is a PhD student and part of a team at Sheffield University’s Department of Psychology who have been studying ASMR in their own time to find out how resolute the sensation really is and what kind of practical uses it might have in healthcare.
Speaking to the BBC about the project, he said: “A lot of people who’ve done our test and who comment on YouTube videos online say it helps them to feel very relaxed and in particular, that it helps them to get to sleep. So I think there’s definitely a therapeutic aspect to it.
“What we need to do is investigate what it is about it that makes it therapeutic so we can fine tune it.”
Right now, there’s still plenty we don’t know about ASMR and the long-term benefits it may or may not have for those who choose to watch in their millions. However, for many people, ASMR videos have become a source of calm and relaxation and the wider online community, a source camaraderie and friendship.
While the videos themselves may seem strange at first glance, perhaps the best indication of the real value of the ASMR phenomenon is the number of people who tune in time and time again to like, subscribe and thank those who create the videos for helping them to switch off.