10 Spine-Tingling Truths About ASMR
Lost in the hubbub over Budweiser’s finger-pointing corn-syrup Super Bowl ad was an unprecedented spot from another beer company: Michelob became the first brand to air an ASMR-inspired commercial in such a high-profile setting.
ASMR is the newest sensation. Short for autonomous sensory meridian response, ASMR is an experience characterized by a tingling, sometimes static-like feeling that usually begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. A soothing smash hit, ASMR has taken YouTube by storm even while the science behind it remains unsettled.
Now shhhhh. Relax. Unwind. Here are 10 softly spoken, glass-tapping facts about ASMR.
10 ASMR Is A Physical Response—Not Just An Emotional One
Often referred to as “the tingles,” ASMR is a response producing a localized shiver-esque sensation starting in the back or crown of the scalp and moving down the spine. Despite its newness—the term “ASMR” was coined a mere decade ago—studies show that the phenomenon is a physical reaction to stimuli as opposed to an emotional experience (for example, getting amped up by a song you enjoy).
One study was particularly telling. An experiment was conducted in which 110 participants viewed ASMR videos while connected to biological feedback machinery. After people with ASMR watched the videos, their heart rates slowed by an average of more than three beats per minute. What’s more, their skin conductance levels—a measure of physiological arousal—were significantly increased compared to those in a non-ASMR group.
In other words, ASMR is on one’s head rather than in it. Many swear by ASMR as a means of relaxation akin to “meditation with perks.” Additional scientific studies are currently being conducted to measure ASMR’s clinical potential to help alleviate a variety of ailments exacerbated by stress, including insomnia, depression, and anxiety disorders.
9 That Said, Nobody Really Knows Exactly What ASMR Is
The triggers that typically cause ASMR are well-known, including soft vocalizations like whispering and tongue clicking as well as calming hand gestures often incorporating gentle scratching and crinkling. However, exactly what is physically occurring in someone while experiencing ASMR remains unclear. Even ASMR University, a site dedicated to substantiating the effect via education and research, can thus far only explain how ASMR “might” work.
These explanations are often parsed to consider the specific ASMR trigger involved. For example, someone experiencing ASMR from a video depicting whispered words vocalized softly, slowly, and in a caring way may be experiencing a surge of endorphins typically associated with parent-infant bonding.
These endorphins then stimulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with desire and motivation, and can even bond with opioid receptors, creating mild euphoria without the need for prescription painkillers.
Another substance that comes into play with most ASMR experiences is oxytocin, a peptide hormone produced in the hypothalamus portion of the brain. Affectionately called the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin facilitates comfort, relaxation, and decreased stress.
It also contributes to ASMR’s telltale tingles by increasing the sensitivity of endorphin receptors. Oxytocin and endorphins together are also known to diminish cortisol, a hormone released during chronic stress.
8 Whatever ASMR Is, It’s Huge—And It’s Diverse
Among the most popular ASMR artists—often shortened to ASMRtists—is the insistently named ASMR Darling. She has more than two million subscribers to her YouTube channel, with many of her individual videos garnering more than 30 million views. Other prominent ASMR YouTube forums, including FrivolousFox ASMR, Gibi ASMR, and the appropriately named Gentle Whispering ASMR, have over a million subscribers apiece.
But the title of Most Viewed ASMR video of all time is the “Crushing Crunchy & Soft Things by Car.” Featuring (you guessed it) a series of objects being backed over by an automobile, the video has generated an astounding 700 million views. Sorry, “Playing with 10000 Mini Magnetic Balls,” you’ll have to settle for a measly 54 million views.
Though ASMR videos certainly have tried-and-true themes that all prominent artists dabble in—tapping, microphone brushing, hand massage, and facial roleplays—content spans essentially anything that anyone could possibly find soothing. This includes eating, playing dominoes, typing, or just reading a book. A site called ASMR Academy lists more than 50 ASMR video ideas for aspiring artists.
There are even videos of people reacting to ASMR videos, one of which has been viewed over six million times.
7 ASMR Is A Real Moneymaker
The top ASMR artists are whispering all the way to the bank. The aforementioned Gibi ASMR earns nearly $500,000 per year in ad revenue—not too shabby for a 24-year-old whose real-world skills include scratching, tapping, and, for some reason, pretending to camp out in Japan.
Gibi is far from alone—and she’s far from the youngest YouTuber earning money fluttering hand over fist. In addition to more than a million YouTube subscribers, Makenna Kelly has nearly half a million followers on Instagram. Her ASMR star power earns her about $900 every day—not bad for a 13-year-old.
Along with online gamers, ASMRtists are among the first cyber-born niche to truly dispel the misconception that YouTube sensations can’t sufficiently monetize their stardom. In fact, many have blown that myth to smithereens.
It’s worth noting that the revenue made by many ASMRtists doesn’t come from online ad revenue alone. The personal nature of the experience leaves many viewers happy to donate to their favorite ASMRtists via PayPal or other online platforms. Some ASMR stars also sell albums (useful, for example, on an airplane with no Wi-Fi), and several sell or endorse trigger items such as signature brushes.
6 There’s Some Really Strange ASMR Stuff Out There
When a novel yet nascent practice like ASMR starts experimenting with other niches, the crossovers can be downright weird. A nod to ASMR’s often nerdgasmic fan base, many ASMRtists have produced sci-fi role play videos. Some mix sci-fi with profession role play—for example, a space travel agent. Here’s one that boldly goes where no ASMR content has gone before.
ASMR also is making inroads—sometimes via guerrilla marketing—into the online gaming community. ASMR trolling, as it is called, has occurred on a variety of interactive gaming platforms, including the widely popular Fortnite.
And what could be more disarming then whispering over warfare? Enter Call of Duty: ASMR. One online prankster who calls himself “Best in Class” makes a career out of ASMR trolling in various cyber settings, among other impression-based gags.
Some of the strangeness defies genre. Apparently, more than 60,000 people found a video featuring a woman petting an oversized stuffed pig tingle-worthy. And nothing says relaxation like a violent chiropractic adjustment.
Many more serious ASMRtists find such fringe content concerning. They fear that it hurts public perception of a cottage industry that could collapse in mockery if not nurtured correctly.
5 There’s An O.G. Of ASMR: Landscape Painter Bob Ross
The man credited with pioneering ASMR did so accidentally—and died 15 years before the phrase was even coined.
Over a period of about a decade starting in the mid-1980s, Bob Ross filmed more than 30 seasons of his half-hour program, The Joy of Painting. Attempting to appeal to aspiring amateur artists, the public television show taught a simplified painting technique. But thanks to Ross’s rhythmic, shush-shush brushstrokes, gently scraping palate knife, and soothing narration, people began watching more for joy than for painting.
The show was an unexpected smash hit for surprising reasons. (What other painting show aired more than 400 episodes?) Viewers reported an inexplicable, tingly, euphoric sensation, a sort of blissful zoning out while Ross crafted his trademark majestic mountains and “happy little trees.”
Many reported that the show even sent them off into a peaceful sleep. The paintings, many of which were strikingly similar from show to show, seemed secondary.
To this day, the frizzy-haired phenomenon—whose show only ended due to his death in 1995 from cancer at age 53—is helping people discover ASMR. As his shows are ubiquitous online, many people only realize that ASMR exists after watching The Joy of Painting. From there, they search for answers about the tingly, trancelike sensation it inspires.
4 Some ASMR Has Become Highly Sexualized
As it deals with the pleasure sensors of the brain, at least some correlation between ASMR and sexuality is inherent. Dr. Craig Richard, PhD, an ASMR researcher and founder of the aforementioned ASMR University, notes that the tingles caused by an ASMR video can make viewers feel they are fetishizing the person or object causing this pleasure.
“[ASMR] videos induce a sexual response, but it’s mostly due to the sexual stimuli, not the ASMR triggers,” he says. With conventional ASMR, it is believed that significant sexualization occurs infrequently. Craig says only about 10 percent of people report feeling aroused by ASMR.
Inevitably, though, some ASMR can become borderline porn. A niche segment known as “erotica ASMR” includes sexual imagery and behaviors combined with ASMR triggering behaviors and sounds designed to stimulate viewers’ brains while they stimulate, well, themselves.
For newcomers to ASMR, there are tells that typically reveal whether an ASMRtist is being intentionally sexual. Cleavage is often a big giveaway. One of the most popular erotica ASMR artists is Valeriya ASMR, a buxom blonde whose bosom is falling out all over the place as she teases viewers with feathers and not-so-subtle mouth sounds. Apparently, she’s quite effective as she’s amassed more than half a million subscribers on YouTube.
3 Hollywood is Getting In On It
What fad would be complete without a roster of actors, musicians, and other celebrities glomming onto it? You haven’t experienced the full brilliance of the modern-day James Dean that is Jake Gyllenhaal until you’ve seen him whisper about his day, play with an antique camera, and twist bubble wrap. And the ASMoscaR goes to . . .
Some celebrity contributions to ASMR are, like the Super Bowl spot, sponsorship driven. The YouTube channel for fashion brand Miu Miu includes videos from a variety of actors who’ve created both individual and collaborative ASMR videos designed as 15-second ad spots.
Highlights include former Big Love sister-wife Chloe Sevigny whispering provocatively while wearing sparkly shoes and Ozark star Julia Garner having a whispered conversation with herself and then playing with a bow around her ankle.
Other prominent celebs are either fascinated with ASMR or producing their own videos. A-listers include Ashton Kutcher, Eva Longoria, and Russell Brand.
ASMR is starting to show up on the big screen, too.
In 2017, Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell depicting the legendary intergender 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, became the first major motion picture with a scene intentionally designed to induce ASMR. The scene features Stone at a hair salon with cameras and microphones focusing on hair touching, soft hand movements, gentle voices, and hypnotic scissor-snipping.
2 ASMR Isn’t Limited To Videos
Though ASMR was largely born and made popular via video, fancy microphones and other specialized equipment are not necessary to produce its effects. ASMR experiences in everyday settings are often what inspire popular YouTube content.
In fact, a sensory stimulation that video can’t replicate—touch—can be a highly effective ASMR trigger. Touch-centric ASMR generally involves the body’s more sensitive areas. As in the aforementioned movie scene, haircuts and ASMR go hand in h . . . well, scalp, and both the soles of the feet and palms of the hands can induce tingles atop one’s head.
Soothing hand motions and light flashes also can induce ASMR, and some feel that these visual triggers are more effective in person than on-screen. Something as banal as watching a child at play can produce a tingly trance.
In-person ASMR also is becoming trendy. One such live experience describes itself as an “intimately sized immersive theater performance, maintaining a one-to-one ratio between guides and guests.” One reviewer was less than impressed. Not surprisingly, ASMR providers are predominantly found in liberal-leaning, high-income areas like New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
1 Many People Have No Idea What We’re Talking About
Unfortunately, a sizable minority of folks must toil through an entirely tingle-less existence. It’s become commonly accepted that many people are simply incapable of experiencing ASMR.
It is estimated that around 60 percent of people can experience ASMR—20 percent quite strongly, another 40 percent more mildly. That leaves a large portion of the population ASMR-incapable. As ASMR is a physical response rather than an emotional feeling, this tingle-less proclivity is seemingly as random among the greater populace as the inability to roll one’s tongue or wiggle one’s ears.
Though they may find a typically low-key, soothing ASMR video somewhat relaxing, this unresponsive subset stops short of any physical response. They might feel calmer but don’t feel tingles.
And considering some common ASMR content—including role-playing ranging from facial makeovers to bank tellers—many people who don’t experience ASMR might view it as just plain weird. One prominent British ASMR artist was mocked on a morning show, an incident whose backlash showed both the insensitivity of the host and the burgeoning popularity of ASMR.
Finally, some people are actually physically repulsed by ASMR. A tiny minority suffer from misophonia, also known as sound rage, and can be triggered into anger or panic by some ASMR sound effects.
Christopher Dale frequently writes on politics, society, and parenting. His work has appeared in NY Daily News, Daily Beast, and Salon, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.
For more spine-tingling stories about sound, check out 10 Mysterious Soundscapes That Rocked The Ancient World and Top 10 Incredible Sound Phenomena.