Yes, ASMR – autonomous sensory meridian response, or the tingling sensation which some people experience in response to certain soothing sounds and sights, as well as the community online that pursues that sensation – is weird. Watching as a stranger on a screen role-plays that she is the human incarnation of your menstrual cycle is undeniably bizarre. Falling asleep to the sound of a person on the other side of the world chewing gum is, objectively, strange. But so is living during a global pandemic. Nothing is normal right now, so maybe your comforts don’t have to be, either.
A woman with a Russian accent gives you a bath. A lady in a bathrobe asks permission to touch your hair. A man with a long beard quietly pretends to sell you “the potent remains of those turned to ash during the final battle of the Avengers: Endgame.” It’s ASMR. It’s weird. And maybe it’s time for you to try it.
“This isn’t who I am,” you tell yourself as you look into the YouTube ASMR abyss. “I don’t trawl the darkest corners of the internet for homemade videos of acrylic nails tapping on a bowl of marbles. I don’t feel a thrill when a stranger leans so close to the viewfinder that I can count her pores and asks if I want a Biscoff cookie. I’m not weird.”
Maybe you are weird. Maybe you belong, at least for this season of chaos, in the world of ASMR.
For people who experience the autonomous sensory meridian response, particular “triggers” (whispering, tapping, brushing) cause a physical and emotional sensation in the head and spine region that is gently electrifying. You might experience ASMR suddenly in your normal day – having your friend play with your hair, listening to a particularly calming historian talk about the Jacobean era, stirring a jug of lemonade.
People report that experiencing the sensation helps them fall sleep and calms them down. Minimal research exists about ASMR, though the first serious study on the topic, published by the University of Sheffield in 2018, found that ASMR had a physiological impact on people. “Those who experience the phenomenon had significantly reduced heart rates while watching ASMR videos compared to people who do not experience ASMR,” researchers wrote.
What is ASMR? It isn’t a treatment for anxiety or depression, but for some people it acts like a balm. It feels the way drinking hot chocolate tastes, or like coming out of a cool swimming pool on a sunny day. It’s hygge. It’s a nonsexual, nonfood, noncostly thing that feels good.
It also seems like something the boy in your secondary school who played a woodwind instrument and had a rat tail would take to, vigorously. ASMR is about finding ways to comfort people who are uncomfortable, so it necessarily turns away from exclusionary concepts like “normal” or “socially acceptable”. Even as ASMR has gone more mainstream – the genre’s fans include celebrities such as lipstick and then wordlessly eating an entire raw octopus leg would be grounds for shunning. In YouTube ASMR land, it has garnered over 26 million views., and in the US, a Super Bowl commercial showed doing ASMR with a bottle of beer – it still lives in the shadows of the internet. It’s a community of outcasts and oddballs that has ballooned to number in the millions. In most of life’s arenas, a woman putting on fuchsia
Eager to show my sister the expansive delights of the world of ASMR, I did a quick search on “ASMR cats”, which I thought would turn up incontrovertibly relaxing content. Within 22 seconds we were watching a video of what I can only describe as a woman giving a shrieking newborn kitten an enema. My sister recoiled, and I winced. What is ASMR? Uh, not this. I should have showed her one of my classic standbys! The wholesome lady baking the mint-chocolate pie! The woman who gives you a rose-scented facial during a gentle rainstorm! One of the ones where a guy is just reading a menu out loud!
“Sure, I sometimes fall asleep to a whispering stranger telling a 40-minute story about the time she took too many psychedelics,” I want to say to my sister. “But I’m not like those other shivering, twitching, internet freaks, clicking my way to comfort. I know where to draw the line. I’m not weird.”
But why should I attempt to insist that I am different, better, than other people? What a weird flex to deprive myself of something pleasant because I don’t want to be grouped with other people who enjoy that same, pleasant thing? As the coronavirus pandemic makes life drastically more unbearable, the corresponding advice we, collectively, give to people who are in pain feels even more tone-deaf than usual: Try to exercise! Stay hydrated! Keep to a routine! It’s not that these are bad things; it’s just that sometimes things are so difficult that normality feels mocking. Maybe you’re not a meditator. Maybe you don’t feel up to doing a miserable exercise routine in your 15-square-foot flat. Maybe the charge to “try a new hobby!” rings false.
Give in to the reality that you are a baby in a human costume gurgling in unimaginable distress. Let someone else take care of you, even an internet person. Outsource your problems, temporarily, to a compassionate stranger. ASMR fans who are in hiding, come out of the closet, clacking your fingernails and brushing your hair.
If you like Animal Crossing, or touring Dakota Johnson’s house, or hearing Ina Garten purr “Butter and sugar! How bad can that be?” you might like ASMR. In short, if you like being soothed.
You might like it. And also, you might need it.