Good vibrations: tapping in to ASMR

ASMR, the euphoric tingling certain sounds provoke, has created online superstars with millions of followers. Is it just a weird fad, or could it help people with anxiety and depression?

When I was five years old something strange happened. After a busy afternoon finger-painting and running around, we were gathered by our teacher on the classroom carpet to listen to a story. I can’t remember which book she read – only that she began to do so in a soft voice, pitched somewherejust above a whisper.

Suddenly, a euphoric, tingling sensation started at the crown of my head and then travelled down my neck and back in waves. The more she read, the stronger the feeling became. I glanced at my friends, expecting to see them in a similar state of rapture, but they weren’t. So I kept the feeling a secret and soon forgot all about it.

Twenty-five years later, I stumble over an article about a YouTube phenomenon with a ludicrous name – ASMR, short for autonomous sensory meridian response. It describes the exact feeling I remembered having as a child, and claims millions of people around the world are tuning into videos that trigger the same sensation – videos of people speaking softly, scraping their fingers over hair brushes or tearing paper. I do a quick search, and spend the night in a blissful state of deep relaxation.

Today, ASMR is the third most popular YouTube search term worldwide. It also remains one of the most reliable measures of the generational divide in the internet age. Ask most people over 40 what it is and they’ll blink uncomprehendingly; ask anyone under 30 and they’ll consider it a little passé.

On YouTube, where the community first began to form around 2012, saturation point has arguably long been passed. There are many thousands of “trigger” videos and almost as many budding creators (or “ASMRtists”). Mainstream breakthrough was achieved in the usual way: first, celebrity endorsements (Cardi B recorded an ASMR track in 2018; Margot Robbie, Cara Delevingne and even Jeff Goldblum have followed suit), then brands began piggybacking the trend in ads (Dove, Lynx, Ikea and – most horrifyingly – KFC’s Colonel Sanders, whispering about pocket squares and nibbling on fried chicken). Zoë Kravitz made an ASMR beer ad that was shown in the Super Bowl ad break in 2019; in 2022, the Design Museum in London is dedicating an entire exhibition to it called Weird Sensation Feels Good. Meanwhile one of the biggest TV shows of this summer, The White Lotus, contained an ASMR scene in which two teenagers get high together on the sound of crackling lighters and bubbling bongs – a far cry from the reality of people sitting in their bedroom alone with headphones on before they sleep.

As for the ASMR creatorsthemselves, many of the most popular have turned it into a full-time career, including creating sponsored videos in which they whisper their way through descriptions of clothing lines and tech products to their hundreds of thousands of listeners, few of whom mind the not-so-subliminal advertising as long as it’s making them feel good.

Chopsticks are lifting noodles that are being eating by red lips
ASMR for all tastes: listening and watching people eat is a popular trigger. Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

But what exactly is ASMR? Well, that really depends on your tastes. There are six main types of triggers that induce the sensation: sounds (by far the most popular, usually involving soft voices, tapping or scratching); visuals (often gentle swooshing movements, such as paint being mixed); eating (watching and listening to people chew); crushing (the sight of objects like kinetic sand, sponges or slime being compressed) and role-playing (more on which later). The final trigger – which the internet cannot reproduce, for now at least – is old-fashioned touch, such as someone “drawing” on your back.

Complicating the picture further, particularly for anyone dipping their toes into ASMR for the first time, is an separate“erotic” branch of ASMR which has recently emerged, and now gets wrongly conflated with pure ASMR (which is a sensory, not sexual, sensation).

But as well as being an established industry and – depending on your age – part of the cultural milieu, ASMR is now reaching something of an inflection point. As its original stars get older and the community as a whole matures, it is starting to crave not merely pop culture recognition but credibility, and a serious, scientific assessment of what the causes and potential uses of this odd sensation really are. Millions claim it helps them with insomnia, anxiety and depression, so is it finally time we start taking ASMR seriously? And if so, what would that even look like?

“The term ASMR is pseudoscience,” admits Dr Giulia Poerio, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex and one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject. “It was made up to make it sound more scientific, because people were calling it stuff like ‘brain orgasms.’”

Herein lies the first hurdle in ASMR’s quest for validation: it sounds odd, from the name itself to stories like the one I told at the start, which might seem familiar to the estimated 20% of the population who experience it and, frankly, deranged to those who don’t. You can see why it’s an uphill battle. “It’s hard to get funding for research into something most people hear about and say, ‘What the hell?’” says Poerio ruefully.

Nevertheless, she and her team were making slow but steady progress before being scuppered by the pandemic. They conducted neurological research involving brain and body scanning similar to experiments carried out to understand music-induced chills (which a reported 50% of people experience). “It’s similar in that not everybody has it,” Poerio explains, “and people that do experience varying levels of intensity.”

Currently, scientific study into ASMR consists of limited tests like these carried out around the world, which Poerio is bringing together in the first full paper on the subject, uniting piecemeal research from Japan, China, USA, Canada and the Netherlands, as well as the UK. But what her tests do show is that these “tingles” are not being imagined. People experiencing ASMR simultaneously have lowered heart rates and increased skin conductance – a slight sweating that indicates sensory arousal.

“We think what’s happening is that overall, you’re getting this relaxing sensation, but you’re also getting peaks of elevation, which is the ‘tingling’. This matches how a lot of people describe ASMR: as something really relaxing but at the same time euphoric.”

One theory of Poerio’s, which happens to be entirely true in my case, is that people who experience ASMR are also prone to the inverse condition of misophonia – literally “hatred of sound” – in which noises most other people can barely hear induce a deep irritation. Music playing faintly from someone’s earphones on the bus, a sloppy eater across a busy restaurant or, paradoxically, some of the popular ASMR triggers I don’t happen to share (such as whispering, as opposed to soft speaking) can bring me out in a hive of irrational rage.

Hands with red fingernails hold a piece of lightly scrunched tin foil
Some ASMR triggers are visual, such as the sight of objects being crushed. Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

“We think the same thing that drives the ability to experience ASMR – a heightened sensory sensitivity – can in other contexts create a negative reaction,” Poerio explains. “It may also be that people who experience ASMR react more strongly to other aesthetic-type experiences, like art and reading.” So, if you’re a culture vulture – or just a person who can be upset by someone sniffling from the other side of a room – perhaps ASMR videos are for you.

Another interesting mystery is what users know as “ASMR immunity”: the sad fact that returns tend to diminish over time. That first night of being reacquainted with ASMR I discovered the enormously popular creator GentleWhispering – sometimes referred to as the “Queen of ASMR” – and her 2012 video Oh Such a Good 3D-Sound ASMR Video, which is something like the Never Mind the Bollocks of ASMR videos: a rough and ready masterpiece that launched a million (mostly bad) imitators. The docile rapture it induced in me withstood weeks of repeating listening; until the effect suddenly began to drain away to the point when it no longer worked at all.

“Essentially, it’s down to habituation and tolerance,” Poerio explains. “Before YouTube, ASMR situations would occur quite unexpectedly, right? Usually because your expectation of something is in some way being violated.”

This, she thinks, explains why creators with less familiar accents (GentleWhispering is originally from Russia) are some of the most popular in America and Europe.

“What’s interesting is seeing the way ASMR artists are responding to the problem of habituation to certain kinds of triggers. They’re doing lots of different things, like integrating sound and movement. I know quite a lot of people who listen to ASMR stuff backwards now, to try and get more of a sensation. I think there’s going to be new ways in the future that we can try and increase our ASMR responses.”

This challenge of keeping the material fresh is one that keeps the biggest ASMR creators up at night. ASMR Glow is a 27-year-old veteran of the scene who says she “rode the second or third wave” after the likes of GentleWhispering to become one of the top creators on YouTube. After five years, she has built up 1.5 million subscribers and her most popular videos have been watched over 5m times.

“When I first started out, people were very much into ‘close personal attention’ videos [roleplays normally involving neutral one-on-one scenarios, like checking into a hotel or having an ear exam]. Then those videos started having fewer views and it became more about specific sounds and triggers. Now, we’re in a trend where it’s very much like TikTok – a focus on short content. So as a creator, you just have to follow it.”

ASMR Glow says she is starting to feel too old to keep up. GentleWhispering opened a video in June with the confession her most recent posts had “not been working out”, and that she’d signed up – with the bashfulness of anyone in their 30s approaching a new social media platform – to TikTok. Like any popular artist, the option is either to try and move with the times, or risk the material you build your reputation on no longer being exciting enough for new audiences.

What sets ASMR Glow apart from many of her competitors are the production values and creativity that go into her videos, which are usually fully realised roleplays, often with a sci-fi element: “My videos can take months to research and prepare for, because I often get custom-made costumes, then a few days to film and edit,” she says. And that’s not counting writing and rehearsing the scripts for videos that can involve speaking for an entire hour.

A hand with long fingernails painted pale purple, opening a can of Coca-Cola
Tingle and relax: ASMR creators face challenges to keep material fresh. Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

It brings up the interesting question of how exactly to categorise ASMR creators. With subscribers often in the millions (the largest, Gibi ASMR, boasts 3.7m; behind her is ASMR Darling on 2.5m), ASMRtists can claim by this metric at least to be as big as some pop stars. But are they performance artists, or something else entirely?

For ASMR Glow, the closest analogy is acting. “I play a role in my videos,” she says, “because I’m not really a calm person, I have a fiery personality. But I have to perform this part of being almost nurturing, or a friend.”

What this doesn’t capture is the almost musical skill the best ASMR creators have at manipulating their voice. They understand how to build momentum, spring surprises and use repetition to take listeners on journeys. But the point about playing a “role” for listeners does touch on another fascinating dimension of what it is that ASMR offers people – both for good and bad.

“Definitely, it’s an art,” says Poerio. “But I also think there’s a huge amount of emotional labour that ASMR artists have had to deal with. Because there’s another element to it all which is about parasocial relationships. People get really attached to ASMR artists, just like influencers in general, and that can sometimes get a bit unhealthy.”

Celebrities have always attracted obsessional fans, and it is inevitable that some people will mistake the simulacrum of intimacy ASMR videos offer as a substitute for the real thing. This is something its stars have to navigate carefully: ASMR Glow can’t be specific about her location for security reasons, and other creators have discussed being victims of stalking.

Despite this and being someone with a law degree to fall back on (“because I know [YouTube fame] can just all go away tomorrow”), ASMR Glow is determined to help shift focus on to what she believes are the real and still largely unexplored mental health benefits of ASMR.

“I’ve received emails throughout my five years of content creation from people with many different backgrounds. Soldiers with PTSD. New mums who have just given birth and are in state of constant stress. People with anxiety disorders or depression who can’t sleep. All telling me ASMR helps them. I really think it could be used hand-in-hand with therapy. It’s not going to cure anyone, but it might make their life slightly better.”

As a scientist, Poerio is slightly more sceptical, but no less determined to find out. “We know about the immediate physiological benefits of experiencing ASMR, which are comparable to things like mindfulness and music-based stress reduction. What we don’t have is any data looking at the long-term effect of repeated exposure. There’s so much anecdotal evidence it has helped, but actually – does it help? And if so, how?

“For example, people report ASMR helping them sleep. Is this because it puts you in a state of relaxation, which means sleep onset is easier? Does it prevent pre-sleep cognitions, which are the things that stop you from getting to sleep in the first place? And does it do anything to actually improve the quality of your sleep? These are all questions that we don’t really know the answer to.”

Other areas the community would like to explore are how ASMR could be used to help children learn, or bring solace to socially isolated groups like elderly people. But all of this requires a small but determined scientific community to get some real financial backing. The long-term aim may well be to establish ASMR as a credible complementary therapeutic treatment. And why not? Music therapy, bibliotherapy and dance therapy are all options now recommended by the NHS and leading mental health charities which at one time encountered cynicism about their merits.

Of course, none of these came with the specific stigma of being a movement driven largely by young women on the internet (though some extremely popular male ASMR artists do exist). While the scientific research finds its feet, there are still hurdles to overcome in addressing the way people dismiss the videos, as ASMR Glow puts it, “as just a bunch of girls whispering into a mic’”.

“There’s so much more to it,” she says, hopefully. “It’s evolving, and we’re getting a little bit more accepted.”

As for the idea that it’s just an internet fad for teenagers, Poerio has the perfect rebuttal. “For many people, their first experience of ASMR was Bob Ross – an old bloke on TV in the 90s,” she points out. “How do you explain that?”


Sam Parker

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Is it ever good to be spiteful?
Would you harm yourself just to get at someone else? Spite is in us all, but there are unexpected benefits to it

Jamie Waters

08, Nov, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
A stitch in time: the benefits of teaching prisoners to sew
Learning a craft can change lives – and a scheme showing inmates how to use a needle and thread has had some remarkable results

Kat Lister

02, Jul, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Anxiety can be good for you
It’s never going to be fun, but it can be healthy – and facing up to it is always better than hiding, says Kate Smith

Kate Smith

07, May, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Every good dog deserves a musical tribute
Hector, dog of dogs, is the most glorious companion. Simon Tiffin reveals how he came to commission a piece of music that would evoke his spirit

Simon Tiffin

28, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Remember the bad and the good times to build your future
A painful childhood can mean avoiding the past. But the act of remembering can be a force for good

Genevieve Fox

26, Jan, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Mend your clothes and do yourself some good
Care and repair is an invaluable mantra for your wardrobe, your mental health, your wallet and the planet, says Molly Martin

Molly Martin

01, May, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Being a good host is about more than just the food
Real hospitality is a life lesson in community living

Priya Basil

24, Nov, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Want to get a good night’s sleep? First of all, stop trying
Seven expert and unexpected tips for people who have already tried everything. By Camilla Stoddart

Camilla Stoddart

24, Sep, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
The health benefits of growing purple potatoes
Purple tatties not only look good – they could help ward off strokes and heart disease, writes James Wong

James Wong

19, Mar, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Creation history: brilliant ideas build on the past | David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
Creativity doesn’t come out of the blue, it starts by remodelling the past, say David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

17, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM