I can vividly remember the first time I realized that I could attain a sensation of calm by totally natural (albeit totally weird) means. I was sitting in my high school science class waiting silently to take a final; our teacher was quietly passing out the test packets, one by one. We were all in the zone, anxiously hoping we’d do well (hello: the periodic table isn’t exactly riveting subject matter).
And as she passed out the tests, the sounds of the paper—gently swooshing against the others, being written on by pencils—made me sort of feel, well, calm and tingly. Totally at ease. (Yes, you heard me correctly: The sound of the paper made me feel at-ease. What!)
You know when you suddenly shudder out of nowhere? It was like that—all along my scalp and back. The paper sounds made me feel sleepy, while also sort of ticklish. It was intoxicating, euphoric, and, clearly, tremendously strange.
I would come to experience this phenomenon for years, but I had absolutely no context or language for it. I told one friend about it (she was one of the only people who wouldn’t be convinced that I was a serial killer or total maniac). Years later, that same friend asked me if I’d heard about something called ASMR. It sounded like an abbreviation for a nerdy science conference or a sexual kink. Naturally, I needed to know.
“ASMR is this weird phenomenon where people have all sorts of pleasurable reactions to noises,” she said—which didn’t exactly sound not creepy—“and it sounds like what you’ve experienced before. Being relaxed by sounds and stuff,” she said.
Yes, you heard me correctly: The sound of the paper made me feel at-ease. What!
Sure enough, ASMR had me pegged.
Defined as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR is an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation (in response to slow movements, whispers, soft sounds, or even personal attention) on the skin around the head, back, and neck. But it’s also very internal; it’s a feeling, a mind-state.
While there remains a need for more in-depth studies, science hasn’t junked the phenomenon either. According to Peer J, ASMR is experienced by thousands of people. It causes euphoria, relaxation, and feelings of general wellness.
I took to the Internet for further investigation, and sure enough, I got more information than I could have imagined. YouTube was filled with ASMR videos—actually, it was a fully-formed community. Thousands of videos (viewed millions of times) offered up ASMR “triggers” created by ASMR artists, or ASMRtists; these videos showcased people whispering, or doing smalls tasks or talking with mindful movements and making deliberate, soft noises.
I have to admit this: At first, I was deeply put off by these videos; they seemed completely foreign and bizarre. A few of them were blatantly sexualized (though this was not the majority at all), and the rest were just overwhelming: forty-five minutes of watching someone whisper or tap? What sort of strange kink is this, I wondered?
Half of the videos were focused on role-playing videos, like one ASMRtist who pretended to be a hotel receptionist. She’d click her keyboard lightly, and tap her pen against paper, and whisper to the viewer, who was supposed to be “checking in to a hotel.” I’d never, ever seen anything like it.
Forty-five minutes of watching someone whisper or tap their fingers? What sort of strange kink is this, I wondered?
It was a community-created corner of the Internet and once I got over the confusion, I actually felt grateful to have found it. I found the videos soothing, sleep-inducing, and peaceful. Some of them are actually really funny or educational, so they’re sort of like stress-reducing tools that offer up other benefits, to boot.
It wasn’t just me. Thousands of commenters consistently thank the artists (many of whom make a living by creating YouTube ASMR content) for helping them sleep, easing their stress, reducing their symptoms of PTSD, or giving them (not x-rated) tingles at the end of the day.
81 percent of ASMR enthusiasts engage with it before bed, using headphones, and 80 percent of participants said it had a positive effect on their mood.
Suddenly, ASMR stopped being “that weird thing that happens to me sometimes” and started becoming a legitimate tool for stress relief. It wasn’t weird. It was real.
Now that my secret phenomenon had a name (and one that apparently even celebrities celebrated), I wanted to know if there was some real science behind it. What actually caused the tingles? After all, millions of people weren’t just making it up!
I found that some researchers, like in this piece published by IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education, argued for the use of ASMR as a tool for stress relief, despite their own understanding that ASMR necessitates additional research. It was a start—and I dug for more.
The International Journal of School & Educational Psychology likened it to the notion of Frisson, which is a sensation somewhat like the shivering caused by emotional stimuli. And according to one study done by Peer J, 81 percent of ASMR enthusiasts engage with it before bed, using headphones, and 80 percent of participants said it had a positive effect on their mood, especially immediately after listening. Interestingly enough, people with depression benefited the most.
While I’ve tried to figure out the exact science behind the sensation, there are no hard answers. I know others are trying to figure it out, too. I recognize that there are loads of people who probably think ASMR enthusiasts or artists are freaks, but the budding conversation around the phenomenon comforts me a bit.
Until I understand it better, I’ll be over here, listening to people whisper into a binaural microphone, as I fall asleep happier and less anxious than I was before.