"Good evening, this is Maria again with you. This video is going to be dedicated to your relaxation," says the young, blonde woman in a soft voice. She moves slowly from the left side of your screen to the right, and you feel her whispering voice deep within each ear. She picks up a hairbrush, running her fingernails along the bristles and tapping the back of it. She blows into your ear and tickles you with a feather. As the video continues, you begin to feel increasingly relaxed and your eyes droop. The whole time she is speaking gently to you. "We come home and we want to relax," she whispers, petting the camera. "We want someone to pat us on the head and say how good we are. We want someone to comfort us, to tell us that we're so great...that we're appreciated. You are appreciated."
It may seem strange, but this video has more than 20 million views on YouTube.
Over the past few years, videos like this have exploded in popularity on the platform. Millions are tuning in to watch strangers whisper into their microphones, tap their fingernails, fold napkins, or roleplay as a comforting nurse-all to help viewers experience a tingling, relaxing feeling known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. It may seem bizarre and uncomfortably intimate and maybe even a little creepy the first time you watch an ASMR video, but the creators behind these videos have a truly benevolent intent: to help their views relax, fall asleep, and find relief from the stress of their everyday lives.
What is ASMR, exactly?
ASMR refers to the pleasurable sensation people experience when exposed to various specific triggers, either from ASMR videos or in their everyday lives. According to a 2015 study from Swansea University in Wales-the first peer-reviewed research into ASMR-whispering is the most common trigger for ASMR, with 75% of participants experiencing ASMR sensations from it. The other most common triggers were personal attention, crisp sounds (like tapping or crunching), and slow movements, as reported by the group of 475 participants.
Because ASMR is such an individualistic experience, different triggers affect some people more than others. Not everyone experiences ASMR to the same intensity and the effects can differ from person to person. However, ASMR is most commonly described as a pleasurable "tingling" sensation that begins in your scalp and creeps its way down your neck and your back, sometimes spreading out to the limbs. Others describe it as "goosebumps on the brain" and "warm chills," a shivering feeling you might get if someone was gently tracing their finger down your spine. Some say it's like the pins and needles sensation when your foot falls asleep, but pleasurable instead of painful. These tingles are always accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of peaceful relaxation and euphoria; many people report feeling their anxiety slip away, and they often fall asleep afterword.
Some have called ASMR a "brain orgasm," but let's clear up one of the biggest misconceptions around this sensation: it's rarely sexual for anyone involved. While ASMR videos are often incredibly intimate, involve roleplaying aspects, and feature young, attractive women, the vast majority of their viewers (both male and female) enjoy them as a method of relaxation. In fact, the Swansea University study found that only 5% of participants reported using ASMR for sexual stimulation.
What causes ASMR?
For those who don't experience ASMR, it can be difficult to wrap your head around this "tingling" feeling and how something as simple as whispering or clicking could trigger it. But recent research has shown that ASMR is more than just a self-reported feeling-it can be measured physiologically. A 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One found that people who watched ASMR videos had a decreased heart rate in response, which can explain the intense feeling of relaxation many people report. Researchers also recorded higher levels of skin conductance in people experiencing ASMR, indicating arousal or excitement (likely due to the tingles).
The explanation behind this physiological reaction occurs lies in the brain. "It's likely that the tingling is due to specific neurochemicals (like oxytocin and endorphins) being released during ASMR-and these neurochemicals are also inducing the deep feeling of relaxation," says Dr Craig Richard, an ASMR researcher. In a 2018 study published by Richard and his colleagues, they found that ASMR activated similar regions of the brain as those activated during affiliate behaviours, which includes interpersonal bonding (such as parent-infant bonding) along with grooming and care-giving behaviours that involve positive personal attention. These behaviours share similar triggers with ASMR, such as gentle touch, soft voices, focused attention, and a bond of trust.
Types of ASMR
There are two main types of ASMR experiences: intentional and unintentional, according to ASMR University, an online ASMR resource founded by Richard:
- Intentional ASMR: The most common intentional ASMR experiences are those you'll find on YouTube, where ASMR artists (as they're called) create various sounds and roleplay situations intended to relax the viewer and make them feel safe. Poets, dancers, music composers, and others can also intentionally create an ASMR experience.
- Unintentional ASMR: These experiences are those you might encounter in everyday life; for example, from listening to a teacher or getting a haircut. If you've ever wondered why Bob Ross was just so soothing, now you know.
Some of the biggest ASMR artists on YouTube-like Gentle Whispering ASMR and Gibi ASMR-have racked up millions of subscribers, with millions of views for some of their videos. These creators are triggering the ASMR experience in countless ways. Sometimes, it's as simple as tapping their fingernails next to their microphone or whispering gently to their camera. Other times, they're roleplaying everyday situations and making them feel far more intimate; for example, a stylist taking your measurements for clothes or a doctor giving you a check-up.
ASMR's unexpected health benefits
The vast majority of people who seek out ASMR do so as a method of relaxation, according to the 2015 Swansea University study, which found that 98% of participants turned to ASMR for this purpose. 82% of participants reported using ASMR as a sleep aid, and 70% said ASMR helps them feel less anxious. Other participants reported ASMR eased their symptoms of depression, boosted their mood, and brought relief for chronic pain. Beyond this study, some people have even said that ASMR acted as a form of therapy to help them work through trauma.
"ASMR is very helpful for people looking to reduce their stress or fall asleep more easily because ASMR is a deep state of relaxation," Richard says. "Any condition associated with stress (or worsened by stress) is likely to benefit from ASMR because the brain and the body become so calm and relaxed."
But despite its therapeutic potential, more clinical studies are needed to fully investigate ASMR and its effects, he adds. For one thing, no one knows for sure what percentage of people are able to experience ASMR (Richard estimates around 20% of the global population experience it fully and another 20% experience it mildly).
Another unanswered question: why do some people experience ASMR while others don't? "The simplest answer is a genetic difference," says Richard. In the same way that some people dislike cilantro or have a high tolerance for alcohol, genetics could affect how sensitive someone is to the neurochemicals produced during ASMR. "The ability to experience ASMR could also be influenced by lifetime experiences, diet, medications, and many other factors," he says. "It's clear that researchers still have a lot to figure out."