Every night, I fall asleep to the sound of someone whispering sweet nothings in my ear. The voice calms me into relaxation, into a deep land of slumber where my anxieties are null and void. But I’m not falling asleep to the sound of my lover. I catch my Zzzzs to the sound of a Russian woman folding towels, a twenty-something booking my space travel reservation, or a handsome young British gentleman giving me a cranial nerve examination, among others. Lately, my favorite is a sweet southern girl checking me into a hotel.
This is the world of ASMR, and you either have it, or you don’t.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and it’s the neologism for a pleasurable tingling sensation in the brain or down the spine. The feeling is activated by certain triggers, which range from tapping, crinkling, flipping pages, or close, intimate talking – just to name a few. The close, intimate talking scenarios (as described in the first paragraph, often referred to in the ASMR community as “role plays”) are personally my biggest trigger, followed by – and I can’t explain it – lip smacking. If I’m focusing on that and nothing else, I’ll be asleep in three minutes flat.
There is no scientific evidence for ASMR, despite there being overwhelming amounts of anecdotal evidence. It’s often been compared to synesthesia, a phenomenon that existed long before medical testing could prove it. A search on YouTube will reveal thousands of videos, some with millions of views. To those who have it, ASMR is a cure for anxiety and insomnia. For those who don’t, they’re simply watching a strange video of a pixie blonde girl tapping her desk.
After having a particularly stressful day in November 2012, my best friend introduced me to ASMR. When I started watching the video – one by ASMRtist (as they’re called) and queen of the YouTube community, GentleWhispering – I was confused. What the hell am I watching? I asked. My friend assured me to just be patient. Five minutes later, I was sound asleep.
The video put a name to something I had been experiencing my entire life. As a child in piano lessons I would often zone out because the soft voices of my teachers, combined with the personal attention, induced ASMR. Same thing happening in math tutoring, or at school conferences. I thought I was weird, and I never know how to describe the feeling – so I just didn’t say anything.
Now, it has a term, but describing it to people still remains bizarre. There is an overtly sexual theme when you say “I watch these ASMR role plays to help me fall asleep,” despite there being nothing erotic about the videos.
But what interests me the most about ASMR is how it is revolutionizing two concepts: self-care, and fandom.
YouTube has become a way for people to take care of themselves. It used to be that on super stressful nights, I would take a Xanax to sleep. Now, I watch an ASMR video (I’m not saying these videos have the power to supplant medication, because it is absolutely needed in some cases. This article is not meant to be a recommendation in place of your doctor’s orders). But the ASMR community is part of a larger digital culture. I have a good friend who does yoga in her living room to a YouTube series that designs yoga workouts based off of situations. In a few weeks, I’ll be on a research panel with a scholar who studies how Schizophrenics use YouTube to control their personality shifts. Even though these videos are mass produced for millions, the delivery is incredibly personal, and the options make it so someone always has exactly what they’re looking for.
Furthermore, these ASMRtists have developed incredible followings. GentleWhispering, whose real name is Maria, is a long-time favorite. ASMRrequests (Ally) has gained immense popularity due to her continuing sci-fi travel series. HeatherFeather, another popular artist, is known for her longer videos, which last more than the typical 15-20 minutes. And even after the most notable ones, there are thousands of others, each with hundreds of thousands of views. People don’t just subscribe to these channels – views into the comments show that people are actively waiting and searching for the next video to show. In some cases, it’s become a bit of a transmedia storytelling phenomenon, as viewers are encouraged to follow the ASMRtist on Twitter or Instagram to get “sneak peeks” into the making of their videos.
I encourage you to go to YouTube and check out the community. Either you’ll find yourself dozing off to the sounds of a twenty-something giving you a hotel tour, or you’ll be scratching your head wondering what these crazy kids will think of next.