Words by Beth Brown

I’m sure many of us, in the middle of the night, have fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole whilst procrastinating sleep. You may cycle through conspiracy videos, makeup reviews or even that guy who builds huts out of mud in Australia. But, have you ever stumbled across a video of someone whispering into a microphone? Chances are you’ve found an ASMR video. 

ASMR stands for ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’, which essentially means the relaxing tingling sensation that can arise from specific stimuli. Some people describe this as ‘brain tingles’. A more common example would be the satisfying feeling of having your head massaged at the hairdresser! It’s as simple as that. 

ASMR video creators create content that uses relaxing sounds and visuals to induce this tingling sensation. Many people, myself included, use these videos to relax and help them fall asleep. While this may be a strange concept to some, ASMR videos are an extremely popular subgenre online. Dr Craig Richard estimated there could be as many as 25 million ASMR videos on YouTube as of 2022! 

These videos are considered a relatively new phenomenon. However, the first intentional ASMR video was published in 2009. By WhisperingLifeASMR, the short video is a black screen and the creator talks about how she loves listening to people whisper. This idea has since developed into a massive online culture of ASMR videos! 

Since 2009, these videos have even generated subcategories, trends and challenges to ensure there is a video for everyone. Some videos include no whispering at all (great for people who hate mouth sounds) and instead feature tapping of objects or other relaxing triggers. Others are roleplaying real-life situations where you may have unintentionally been experiencing ASMR for years: such as doctor appointments, spa treatments or even having your makeup done. There is a focus on personal attention within these videos, as they are designed to relax and ground the viewer. 

There are some even more unique trends, which illustrate the complex psychological nature of ASMR. For example, KarunaSatoriASMR founded the ‘fishbowl effect’ which is basically the creator pretending the viewer is stuck inside a fishbowl, warping the audio and dialogue. Another interesting trigger, which seemed to gain popularity on TikTok, is the creator picking imaginary bugs out of the microphone. The videos can really include anything! It is fascinating how different reactions can be to each type of video. Personally, I know some of the subcategories I have discussed I really do not enjoy. However, after watching ASMR for a few years, I have become accustomed to knowing what will relax me. It is a very individual experience for everyone. 

So what exactly are these tingling sensations? Dr Richard estimates that only about 10-20% of people can experience ASMR, which is perhaps why many cannot understand the fascination behind these videos. Upon conducting a study, Dr Richard discovered that ‘…specific areas of the brain are active when someone is experiencing ASMR. Some of these regions highlight the likely involvement of dopamine and oxytocin…’ Dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ hormone, and oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone, both aid in relaxation and comfort. 

Although there is very little research into why or how ASMR exists, there is an understanding that it can aid in well-being and mental health. ASMR is considered by many as a form of mindfulness that overlaps with meditation. Some videos act as ASMR guided meditations! As someone who is trying to include meditation into my routine, I cannot say I have tried an ASMR guided meditation. However, I imagine it deploys many of the same benefits, such as a lowered heart rate. 

Many ASMR videos aim to combat feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as insomnia. For starters, the stimuli physically and emotionally relaxes the viewer, allowing them to focus on the video. If you are familiar with white noise, it is a similar sensation. Beyond this, for many viewers having someone personally focus on their well-being, whether that is through a screen, can be extremely comforting. You will likely find many comments of gratitude on ASMR videos, thanking the creator for aiding viewers through a particularly difficult time. At its core, the ASMR community is a pleasant one, focused on relaxation and enjoyment. 

That is not to say ASMR videos come without controversy. For many, ASMR is extremely unsettling, which is counter-productive to the intentions of the videos. Particularly in videos that include intense mouth sounds with a sensitive microphone, those who suffer from misophonia likely could not imagine anything worse! Categorised as a strong hatred or dislike for specific sounds, misophonia is often triggered by things such as: chewing, breathing or tapping. Often, small repetitive sounds or motions trigger the disorder, which makes it evident why misophonia sufferers will steer clear of ASMR.

More shockingly, there is some controversy surrounding the intimate nature of ASMR. Although the videos are ultimately designed to relax, a study in 2015 reported that 5% of respondents watched ASMR for sexual stimulation. These more sensual videos often lead to debates about whether certain ASMRists (ASMR creators) should be allowed to operate on apps such as YouTube or Twitch. In the past, some creators have been banned from streaming platforms for breaching guidelines for what is appropriate to publish. These more sensual branches of ASMR videos undoubtedly exist, as you find with almost all online content, however they are an extremely small niche within the community. However, it is an understandable question from those not involved in ASMR, as they are externally considered an ‘out there’ form of content. 
So what is the takeaway? Although these types of videos can appear as a strange form of entertainment, they are enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. Proven to help with well-being and quality of sleep, ASMR is generally a beneficial phenomenon. Even if you have not watched a creator whisper into a microphone for 20 minutes, you may have unintentionally experienced ASMR before! From personal experience, I urge you to give ASMR a try as you may be surprised by the benefits. However, if you discover ASMR is just not for you, that is completely okay! ASMR may be an acquired taste, but for many it is a crucial source of relaxation and mindfulness.

Picture Credits: Pexels

Categories: Features

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