“HI, GUYS, welcome back,” whispers a young blonde woman in an extremely close-up video shot on the first episode—”The Internet Whisperers”—of Netflix’s documentary series, “Follow This.” She swishes her tongue back and forth, then rubs, licks and sucks what look like white ceramic ears, creating an effect somewhere between seductive and disgusting.
But susceptible aficionados feel something different: a tingling sensation that begins on the scalp and moves down the spine and sometimes through the arms and legs. It’s called ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR has helped people with sleep, stress, anxiety and depression.
“The Internet Whisperers” reports on a genre of online streaming videos that has exploded in recent years, with viewers over the past year up from 5 to 11 million, and hundreds of ASMR videos posted every hour. In this first episode, Buzzfeed News culture reporter Scaachi Koul investigates ASMR, both on videos and in person, and has what she ultimately concludes was “the most complicated experience I’ve ever had…I don’t know if that was the worst thing I’ve ever done or the best, it could have been both.”
ASMR is elicited by watching or hearing other people whisper, tap, brush hair, brush other surfaces, close and open boxes, turn pages, crinkle paper, even eat —with a recent surge in ASMR food shows highlighting sounds over recipes. One video of a woman eating pickles has attracted more than 5 million viewers.
The doyenne and maybe most-watched Internet ASMRtist, Maria, has garnered half a billion views on her YouTube channel GentleWhispering since she started in 2011 role-playing soothing cosmetologists, librarians and flight attendants, but mostly appears as herself.
“I try to be nurturing, almost a motherly figure,” Maria told “Follow This.” Tracing ASMR’s popularity to increased stress and insomnia in today’s culture, she says: “Our main concern is a viewer’s sleep.”
“People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal,” Columbia University sleep disorders expert Carl Bazil told the New York Times. Grouping ASMR with other behavioral treatments for insomnia such as progressive relaxation, Bazil suggests ASMR videos might be another way “to shut your brain down.”
ASMR has been compared to a sensation called musical frisson, a ripple of chills or goosebumps in response to music, studied by Montreal neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, who found a corresponding increase in the brain’s dopamine activity.
On functional MRIs of 22 relaxed subjects, those who reported experiencing ASMR showed differences in their brain networks compared to typical controls, in studies by University of Winnipeg psychologist Stephen Smith and colleagues.
In the first group, unusual areas of the brain, specifically those related to vision, were activated as part of what’s called the brain’s “default mode network”—structures along the brain’s midline that fluctuate together when people are daydreaming, and during altered states of consciousness, such as psychedelic experiences. In the first group, too, there was more blending of different brain networks compared to the controls.
Personality studies of the two groups found those with ASMR “more open to new experience, also more neurotic with a greater level of emotional instability and less agreeable,” said Smith, noting that “at this point it’s a lot of speculation.”
Of 475 self-reported “tingleheads,” 75% said whispering was an effective trigger and a “sizeable majority” of these said they watched ASMR videos to help them sleep and cope with stress, according to University of Wales psychologists. Despite the reputation of ASMR videos being used for “braingasms” and “whisper porn,” only about 5% of subjects said they chose ASMRotica with sex as their goal.
Early reports of ASMR surfaced around 2007. While considered the first psychological phenomenon discovered by internet users, ASMR also appears in audio recordings, such as the episode “A Tribe Called Rest” in the 2013 “Tribes” series on NPR’s “This American Life.” By 2014, nearly 2.6 million YouTube videos depicted ASMR.
In addition to earlier books on the topic—including an Idiot’s Guide to ASMR published in 2015—Brain Tingles by ASMR guru Craig Richard, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University in Virginia, came out in September, 2018. Richard, founder of ASMR University, a clearinghouse website with interviews and blogs related to ASMR, has been conducting an online survey with tens of thousands of responses so far and one early conclusion: the intimate experiences offered by ASMR may trigger feelings of being loved.
Richard addresses the possible connection of the tinglehead to what is often called the Highly Sensitive Person—individuals in the 15 or 20% of the population with different atypical sensory sensitivities, called “sensory processing sensitivity” or “sensory integration disorder.” In fact, this group might have the most negative reactions to ASMR stimuli, including misophonia, a strong dislike of one or more particular sounds, which can provoke anything from mild anxiety to rage.
Many ASMR enthusiasts like the anonymity of viewing or listening to stimuli—characterized as “intimacy without vulnerability” by the creators of the Brooklyn N.Y. Whisperlodge, which offers a “sensory journey of live ASMR.” During her visit, Buzzfeed’s Koul watches the two Whisperlodge creators together brushing a client’s naked back in synchronized movements. Afterwards, Koul is given a short simulated clinical exam, as if she’s at a doctor’s office. Watching such an exam (probably mostly because of the touching) is the subject of many ASMR videos.
To critics, the very close-up face shots of these videos create artificial intimacy. While Maria (of GentleWhispering) believes that artificial intimacy is not better, she believes, “if it helps someone, it helps someone, that’s the bottom line.”
Koul’s conclusion after her Whisperlodge experience: “Everyone is entitled to a little one-sided intimacy once in a while.” She suggests, in a soft voice, “The Internet may be introducing intimacy back into our lives one gentle whisper at a time.”
Every Tuesday in this space, well-being editor Mary Carpenter fills us in on health news we can use.