21 September 2018


Alerts, notifications, pings - the sounds that send an anxious shiver through our body. But what if there was a way using technology, in which we could find it relaxing, and even comforting? 

I’m not a big fan of physical contact. I don't like when someone sits next to me on the bus, making me feel suffocated and closed in against the window; I don't like how close the dentist has to get to my face when he’s pulling at the corners of my mouth to get a better look at my teeth; I can’t stand it when someone is sitting next to me on the sofa and their shoulder or arm is against mine; I even feel a frisson when someone touches something belonging to me. With that said, I do like a good hug now and then, usually at the end of the night after spending some time with friends or with a family member. Other than that, it all seems a bit ‘up close and personal’ for me to be comfortable with. Yet recently, I discover a new form of intimacy that I’m kind of here for.

Whilst watching a YouTube video of the Fab 5 (yasss for Queer Eye!) reacting to some video clips, one was of a lady munching through a jar of gherkins into a microphone. With loud eating being a pet peeve of mine, you bet it made me cringe in disgust. I gave her channel a visit to see what it was all about and was surprised to find thousands of very similar videos. One of which I clicked on started with her chewing away on a gummy bear. Making my ears bleed, I immediately clicked off it and onto a ‘suggested video’ from the sidebar. This user was instead tapping her makeup brush against the microphone, peeling back electrical tape, and whispering out lines from an old hardback book. I still found it odd and confusing as to why on earth people would sit actively watching these sort of videos. 

I returned to the video of the woman eating a gummy bear but still chose to skip the sections of her eating. I landed on part of the video where she began opening a packet of Peeps. She took a row of the yellow sugar coated marshmallow shapes out and began running her fingertips along them and tapping them. I began to feel this odd (but nice) sensation on my scalp, it instantly took me back to my mum running her fingers through my hair when I was little. Sometimes this contact would put me in a trance-like state as the sensation can be so overwhelming. It’s a feeling that you wont forget. Up until very recently I never knew what this sensation was or what it was called - I just understood it was a feeling you get in your head when someone plays with your hair, everything else seemed a mystery. 

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of ASMR - autonomous sensory meridian response. This is a sensation characterised as a tingling that starts at your scalp and in your brain then trickles down your spine, often described as a brain orgasm (even though the feeling isn't sexual and the stimuli have very little to do with sex). The sound or movement is called a trigger within ASMR. When I first heard the term being used in the videos it actually made me a bit uncomfortable as the word trigger has negative connotations for me and 'triggers' have been something I would usually avoid. However, through ASMR I’m learning to feel more at ease when I hear the word and slowly beginning to look at it as more of a positive thing. 

When it comes to ASMR triggers, we are all different. For example, I like brush strokes but can’t stand the eating, though you might be different. There is no right or wrong. Maybe you get pleasantly triggered from the sounds of different brushes against a microphone, or maybe you like unintelligible whispering. There are countless videos made for your preferred trigger, whatever it is that gives you the tingles. Do you like back rubs? Why not try “ASMR Back Tracing w/ Scratch, Brushing, Buds & Oil Massage”. Maybe someone eating an array of foods is more your thing. Or why not let sweet, soft spoken Daisy give you a tattoo in some role play? With over 11 million ASMR videos on YouTube, this trend continues to grow in popularity and after coming across it myself, I can now see why. 

ASMR videos are intimate. They involve close-up shots of someone quietly and methodically turning an object over, tracing the words on packaging, running their fingertips along a textured table cloth, or tapping an item. Some videos feature a connection between two people, such as one woman brushing the hair of another, or giving a massage, or slowly doing their makeup. Other videos rely on role-play. Users look into the camera lens and treat you like you're a client in need of a hair cut, or a patient in for some calming medical care (perhaps an ear cleaning?). Or what about a 1950’s drive-in movie date? They talk to you as if you were a friend. It’s one-sided and requires, at most, a little make-believing. It’s without the face-to-face intimacy which inevitably means you have to give something back. For instance, getting an actual massage might mean worrying about how your body looks to someone else, or getting help for anxiety can feel too daunting at first because it requires more human interaction than you might be ready to have just yet.

There is no denying that the internet has changed the way we live. It’s human nature to be conscious of how you come across to other people, what they think of you, whether you seem foolish or weird to someone new. ASMR works beautifully because you can turn that switch off in your head and not have to worry about any of that other stuff. Having bad social anxiety myself, things like eye contact and small talk can seem really overwhelming. Days before meeting someone new I can be stressing and overthinking about making small talk. The face-to-face connection requires a kind of ‘leap of faith’. It’s intimidating but we’re forced into social interactions every day so it’s nice to have this one small thing, online, all to ourselves, where no-one can judge you on it… unless you decide to write a blogpost about your journey into ASMR that is.

ASMR is a term that isn't widely recognised and is hard to describe. Because of this it’s difficult to know how unique this ‘trait’ is and if everyone experiences ASMR or not, and if so, to what extent. Apparently only around 20% of people can experience ASMR, and since not everyone experiences it, there will be people who just don't get it and that’s okay. Personally, I want to believe it is possible for everyone to feel it in some capacity, though it might be either harder for some people to be triggered or they have yet to make the specific connection between a particular sound and ASMR. Having read discussions and asking for peoples opinions on the topic, those who have ASMR first recognised it as something they have felt their whole life, but didn't know how to describe it, or didn't see it as being usual. On the other hand, of those who have never experienced ASMR said that though the descriptions sound amazing, “it’s as useful as describing colour to a blind person”. When it came to how common they think it is for people to have ASMR, most believe it’s actually a minority of people who have ASMR, therefore most find it hard to relate to. 

For those who do have ASMR, in this small but growing corner of the internet, they sit down to watch ASMR videos for a range of reasons as it differs person to person. In a study 98% said it was an opportunity for relaxation, closely followed with 82% agreeing that ASMR helps them sleep, and then coming in behind with 70%, participants said they use ASMR to deal with stress. For me, I use ASMR weekly as a way to calm anxiety and relax in the evening - I can even find myself beginning to doze off during the videos as it can be so therapeutic. 

All in all, there is still plenty we don't know about ASMR. We have no idea why our state of relaxation manifests in this particular and distinctive way. We don't know why some experience it whilst others don’t - could our brains be hardwired differently? And we can’t say for sure if it will treat mental health issues such as anxiety and depression (though many - including myself - in the ASMR community firmly believe it at least helps).

The quiet word of ASMR is certainly a stark contrast to the fast paced world of constant alerts, notifications and pings that’s for sure.

For those wishing to further explore ASMR content, the best resource is YouTube. Throughout this post I have made links to specific videos by different ASMRtists which (should) open in another tab. You can also catch Follow This on Netflix, which in the first episode titled ‘Internet Whisperers’ BuzzFeed Culture writer, Scaachi Koul, dives into the rising trend of ASMR and even goes to experience in-life ASMR (which for me, takes away from the point but is very interesting). If your interest is more academic or you just want to read more into it, a good place to start is at the ASMR University website.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be watching videos of people playing with grains of rice and makeup brushes....

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