ASMR: Cerebral marvel or internet sensation?

ASMR YouTube videos feature everyday things like brushes, boxes and gum-chewing to relax their viewers. Photo by YouTube channel Olinya.

Open YouTube on your nearest internet-connected device and performing a quick search for “ASMR” will yield hundreds of thousands of results. You’ll find everything from close-up gum chewing to hair brushing to shoe store roleplays – and what started as a cult phenomenon in the far corners of “weird YouTube” has become wildly mainstream.

W Magazine’s popular video series pits celebrities in front of sensitive microphones to play around with all kinds of tingle-inducing devices. With each episode now getting a million views, it’s time we examine just what makes ASMR so popular.

An acronym for autonomous sensory meridian response, ASMR can be defined as a pleasurable sensory phenomenon that includes a tingling sensation starting on the top of the head and moving down the body.

Like goosebumps but less chilling, the sensation is triggered by a variety of sounds, and it often differs person to person. Referred to as triggers, these sounds include things like someone speaking softly or whispering and someone tapping on a box.

Even everyday brands are getting in on the trend – Ikea released a 25-minute commercial titled “Oddly IKEA” in which a woman softly speaks about new dorm room furniture while caressing shelving units and tapping her nails on lamps. Ikea’s video now sits at over 2.2 million views and shows how the trend is sweeping across internet culture.

Some state their beginnings of their ASMR sensations occurred by watching Bob Ross, the late painter that charmed many with his gentle tone and refreshingly positive approach to art. Much like meditations and other wellness activities, some use ASMR as a mindfulness activity that helps them destress, calm down and fall asleep.

No clinical trials have tested whether ASMR is a valid solution to sleep deprivation, but studies have examined the overall sensation and found what triggers it most commonly.

One such study from Swansea University in the United Kingdom performed an extensive evaluation of ASMR, and stated that the data shows “temporary improvements in symptoms of depression and chronic pain in those who engage in ASMR.”

It also found that participants of the study largely use the sensation as a sleep aid (82 percent), and that 70 percent used ASMR to cope with stress. The study also measured how common certain triggers were felt in ASMR viewers and found that the most popular category was whispering, at 75 percent of those who voted.

The next most popular triggers included crisp sounds like crinkling paper and tapping fingernails, while the least popular trigger types included white noise like vacuum cleaner sounds (3 percent) and laughing.

Age also played a factor in the study, as many users reported first experiencing the stimulation between the ages of five and ten years old, though some first experienced it much later in adulthood.

The participants largely agreed that viewing ASMR had a positive effect on their mood, and a link between depression levels and self-reported mood was also found.

Users with moderate-to-severe depression experienced a less-intense increase in mood levels when compared to those with low or no depression, but all users did report an overall improvement.

The survey also evaluated effects on chronic pain levels – the researchers found that 15 percent of individuals reported improvements in chronic pain symptoms as a result of watching ASMR.

One of the few academic studies of its kind, this research helped illuminate the phenomenon that is currently sweeping the far corners of the internet, and the popularity of ASMR YouTube channels seems to agree with these results.

Channels like GentleWhispering and MassageASMR have over 50 million total views, and some self-proclaimed “ASMRtists” are making a career out of this popularity.

In an interview with the Oakland Press, Lily Whispers – a popular ASMR content creator with nearly a quarter million subscribers – mentioned that she has a talent manager and uploads several times per week.

“People use [ASMR] for background music,” she said. “They use it to focus, like winding down for bed, or when they’re having anxiety attacks.”

Lily Whisper’s channel features long videos focusing on personal attention, hair-brushing, and quiet rambling videos. Other channels like MassageASMR feature more meditative videos do feature videos of patient massages, as well as “silent unboxings”, where the content creator slowly unpackages a new product and shows it to viewers.

Gameplay videos are also popular topics for ASMRtists, though the gameplay often focuses on slower paced games and are played in a relaxed fashion.

Though the sensation is not felt by everyone, and some may find the videos and description of the sensation somewhat creepy, ASMR has been proven to have a positive effect on overall wellness. If you’re considering taking the leap into this mellow, hush-toned corner of the internet, grab some headphones, dim the lights and give it a try as you nod off to sleep.

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