The ASMR Phenomenon You Either Completely Understand or Completely Don’t

Posted · Add Comment


I came into the ASMR fold pretty late. I heard about it after my ex crush, failed date, audio journalist, former neighbor (yes, all that), tweeted the article, Meet The Maryland Woman Who Makes A Living By Whispering. That night, I watched her role play that she was a flight attendant, explaining how to put on a seat belt. And I felt a little something, something. Give or take six months, it was the second time I stumbled on an ASMR video, that I was hooked.

I’m ASMR-ing right now.

ASMR is….What?

Sound, as described by  Maria Geffen, PhD, and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, are “mechanical vibrations in the air that the eardrum picks up and transfers to the cochlea” before being converted to electrical signals to be analyzed by the brain. She goes on to explain that while don’t all interpret sounds the same, we do usually feel more relaxed and at ease, in response to lower frequencies and repetitive sounds. (Yahoo Health)

Insert ASMR, given it’s full name, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, in 2010 – not by science, but by the internet. A relaxing tingling in the scalp and the back of the neck, “triggered” by assorted soft, repetitious tapping or crinkling sounds, and or whispering.

The growing community of online participants are quick to tout the benefits of listening  to these types of sounds as specifically created in YouTube videos. They assert that it helps with depression, PTSD, sleep disorders, concentration disorders, anxiety and migraines. The verdict is mixed on a definite cause behind this, but the most popular theory centers around the release of serotonin or oxytocin in the brain, being triggered by the sounds.

What your favorite online media sources have to say about ASMR:

  •  Imagine a tuning fork going off at the base of your skull. The sensation — akin to a cool tingling — spreads like spilt liquid up into the back of the head, down the neck and into part of the back. It flows like a pulse, a physical feeling like a light on a dimmer switch being turned up, then back down.
  • There’s no shortage of non-verbal audio ASMR, including tapping, scratching, brushing, drawing, typing, massages, accents and whispering. Others are visual, such as towel folding or shoe shines.
  • ASMR has routinely been compared to frisson, in which people experience sensations triggered by music. Steve Novella, a doctor who writes a blog focused on neuroscience, noted that the various triggers associated with ASMR are generally found in the same part of the brain, “that part of us that interacts carefully and thoughtfully with our environment or with other people. There is something calmly satisfying about such things.”
  • If ASMR has a godfather, it is television painter Bob Ross. His videos bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate ASMR video: the soft speaking directly to the viewer, the painting, the sounds of that painting, the gentle scrape of a paint-filled knife on a dry canvas.
  • The show had a peculiar audio setup. The sounds Ross makes with his painting — the scraping of palette knives and his signature brush cleanings — are picked up almost as well as his voice. This was done on purpose. Sounds and how they were recorded are crucial. ASMR is usually triggered aurally, particularly when the person causing them gives personal attention, as Ross did when he talked directly to the viewer.

[By Jason Abbruzzese, Mashable]


Signs of Quality ASMR: When the Artist Uses These Weird Ear Speakers

Any ASMR artists worth their salt has taken to using 3Dio microphones, to create binaural recordings. Sounds are the way to trigger ASMR, and when wearing headphones, binaural mic recordings mimic people talking from behind or beside.

Binaural audio is a technique that goes back to the 19th-century. It’s creates  sound reproduction similar to the way we hear in the real world. It began with French engineers determining how to best cater to opera goers in suites. They would systematically space pairs of microphones in front of the stage, from the left to the right, and the listeners would mount the receivers on their ears. The sound was transmitted though the telephone, and voile, comfortable distance listening that feels like your’re right there.

Today, binaural microphones create sound that seems three-dimensional and heighten the trigger effect ante.

Learn more over at The Verge, Surrounded by sound: how 3D audio hacks your brain.

Sounds Like a Trigger If I Ever Heard One

  • Some people watch the videos to help them sleep at night. It is sort of relaxing, if you can get past the dissonance of someone whispering in your ear.
  • The way ASMR manifests is different for everybody. Those with Type A are said to be able to cause ASMR through meditation, or just thinking about a trigger, while Type Bs need to actually experience the trigger.
  • Physiological arousal (heart rate, respiration, etc.) increases under a number of circumstances. One of these is proximity. We are highly sensitive to close stimuli. When someone whispers in your ear, that will certainly quicken your heart rate and grab your attention. To the auditory system, breathiness is a proximity cue, so high breathiness is heard as symptomatic of intimacy.
  • “I definitely think it has something to do with proximity,” Maria (YouTube name GentleWhispering) says. “When you watch ASMR videos, you’re completely vulnerable, the viewer is. It’s almost uncomfortable for you to be that close to another person, but if you feel how much they care about you at that moment, it just puts you in that state of euphoria.”

[Julie Beck, The Atlantic]

  •  ASMR role-play.
  • Attention is a crucial dimension of the ASMR experience. One of the things almost all the role-play videos have in common is that they center around a single person who is speaking to, and attending to, one very important presence: yours.
  • There is obviously something about doing things quietly, slowly, and gently that is inherently calming and relaxing. The combination of slow, deliberate physical movement and close attention to a mundane activity is one I probably don’t encounter frequently enough. Who’s to say eating salty potato-based snacks can’t be an occasion for transcendental experience?

[Mark o’Connell, Slate]

ASMR is Not Sexual

ASMR from a psychological perspective.

  • It’s not usually sexual—everyone who talked to me about ASMR mentioned that right off the bat—but like sexual turn-ons, different people have different things that set them off: the sound of lips smacking together, a cashier’s fake nails tapping on the register, your friend drawing on your hand with a marker.
  • As for the lack of male whisperers, Maria offered a fairly simple explanation: “If a guy is in front of the camera and whispering,” she said, “there aren’t many things he can do that won’t seem creepy.”
  • There’s no record of ASMR existing until a couple years ago, but it’s not as if this feeling suddenly appeared and swept across the globe.
  • Researching the causes behind the feeling have proved much more difficult than naming it. Jenn and her associates have found that ASMR is “astonishingly universal,” experienced by people of all ages across every continent. Most people get triggered first as children and carry it around throughout their lives, though some people, discovered the sensation later in life.

[Harry Cheadle, VICE]

But Sometimes ASMR is Definitely Sensual.

  • In the video called “~Sensual Trigger Words~ *ASMRotica* *3Dio Binaural*,” Love wears a low-cut T-shirt, rectangular glasses and fluorescent pink lipstick, her black hair styled with short, Bettie Page–style bangs. She greets her viewers in a painstaking whisper in which every consonant is elongated, enunciated, even somehow massaged. “Now today I wanted to do a sexy, sensual trigger words video ― Part 2,” she says, her dimples popping in and out of view as she attempts to hold back a smile.
  • For her brand of ASMRotica, Love operates in the domain of sound, delivering breathy words loaded with innuendo. “Drip. Moan. Rock. Heavy. Lust. Desire,” she continues, her words reclining and writhing as momentum builds. “Building. Feeling. Pleasure. Hot. Scream. Harder. Moaning.” Her tone is suggestive enough to make a parent cover her kid’s ears. The climax hits. “Together. Release.” And then things wind down. “Sticky. Ecstasy. Finish. Quiver. Gasp. Wet. Dripping. Flow. Love. Deep breaths.” Depending on whether or not you respond to ASMR, you may, by this point, be feeling some seriously sexy tingles up and down your spine.
  • The world of ASMRotica paints a picture, of a very different online realm, one in which authentic sensual pleasure is just a YouTube video away. There won’t be penetration or nudity, not even much obscenity. But perhaps a haircut, a gentle bedtime story, or a soft scalp massage.

[Pricilla Frank, Huffington Post]

  • Insomnia seems to be a common theme among those cruising the ASMR waves.
  • Some listeners even seem to be using ASMR videos to soothe anxiety and symptoms of clinical depression – with a few commenters going as far as to say they can be used to halt their own panic attacks. Understandably the comments sections are also saturated with declarations of gratitude and affectionate praise for those providing this ASMR fix for their stressed out and sleep deprived subscribers – there’s a real community feel within this internet sub-set.
  • The only slight downside to ASMR is that it’s a little addictive.

[Maths System, Huffingtonpost UK]

  • Given that ASMR is open to misunderstanding and misconceptions, a healthy dose of scepticism is important for future research in the area. Anecdotally, the Sheffield group point out that some ASMR enthusiasts use the videos therapeutically, to help with symptoms of insomnia, anxiety or depression. This is echoed in the findings from Barratt and Davis’s survey; their data showed that, for people who scored as having moderate to severe depression, 69% reported using ASMR videos to help ease their symptoms, and generally reported a greater improvement in mood than individuals who were not depressed. But these are self-report measures, and further work needs to be done to pinpoint to what extent there may be an actual therapeutic effect.
  • “There needs to be a careful balance between skepticism and open-mindedness when investigating ASMR,” the Sheffield group say. “There is also of course the danger that ASMR videos get picked up by people who might try and use them to market pseudoscience or mental health benefits (without the evidence to support it), and inadvertently spread misinformation about it, which would of course damage the reputation of any genuine research going on,” they add. We’ve already started to see cases of this – just this week, in an interview with the Daily Mail, ASMR video producer Lauren Ostrowksi Fenton claimed that the sensation is produced by oxytocin, which she refers to as “the cuddle hormone, the hugging hormone, or the feel-good hormone”.

[Pete Etchells, The Guardian]

  • Clearly it doesn’t really matter what is said. I’m not sure how perfect my eyebrows, in fact, cover my face, but I don’t care. Because SOMEONE IS BEING NICE TO ME AND I LIKE THAT. And my brain tingles and I am relaxing and feel like I’m melting and zzzzzz. Apparently this has become such a thing that there is now a push to research just why exactly this happens. Why can some people experience “brain orgasms,” as they’re also called, and some just can’t? How can this be used as real therapy? There’s definitely an element of self-hypnosis and meditation going on here.
  • I could sleep to close-up mouth whispering.

[Jill Neumann, Thought Catalog]


Writer and curator of interesting12, Maggie is a DC based writer with a heart for nonprofits, a passion for complicated people, and lover of all things well designed and well said. This former longtime LA resident is a firm believer we should be challenging ourselves to discuss what affect us in this world and how. She’s opinionated, a teller of both sides of the story, and some say she’s clever.