A beautiful, pale woman with wavy, blond tresses appears on screen. She’s bathed in a soft light that makes her glow against the nondescript black background. When she starts speaking, you have to turn up the volume a few notches because she’s whispering so softly. Then you see her perfectly manicured hands, which move in slow, rhythmic motions across the screen. She picks up a wooden hairbrush and taps it methodically with her fingernails before she gets close the camera and motions like she’s brushing your hair (all while you hear the noise of knots being untangled).
The video has more than 1.5 million views, but the woman behind it, Maria on the YouTube channel GentleWhispering, isn’t a mainstream celebrity (though she goes to great lengths to keep her last name private). She uses the two-minute video to explain the basics of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a fancy term to describe the tingling sensation that some people feel when they hear whispers or crisp sounds, watch slow movements, or even just receive strong personal attention, such as a gentle gaze that signals someone else is paying attention without being intimidating.
The tingling that happens with ASMR starts at the back of the skull and moves down the neck, bringing the person into a state of total relaxation, says Craig Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University and the founder of the website ASMR University. People who experience ASMR also report that the videos help with stress, insomnia, and even chronic pain. It seems surreal, but you don’t have to take our word for it. Go ahead and watch the clip for yourself:
Did you feel the tingling sensation? If you didn’t, the video probably felt like a mind-numbing (or at least bizarre) way to pass the time. But if you experience ASMR, these types of videos—produced by self-proclaimed “ASMRtists”—can feel like a form of euphoria. Maria at GentleWhispering has described the feeling as “warm sand being poured all over you” and “goosebumps for the brain.”
Others, like Richard, describe the pleasure as being similar to the feeling you get in the middle of a massage. “When getting a massage, you get so relaxed, the tension leaves your muscles, and your brain gets very calm to the point where you want to fall asleep,” he says. “But the feeling is so good you don’t want to sleep.”
The Basics of ASMR
YouTube videos aren’t the only way to experience ASMR. The videos ASMRtists intentionally create are actually a relatively recent phenomenon, as is the term ASMR. (Even though it sounds vaguely scientific, ASMR was coined by Jenn Allen in 2010 when she started a now-defunct site aimed at jump-starting research on the topic. The sensation has had plenty of other names over the years, including attention-induced euphoria, braingasm, and goose looping.)
Most people stumble upon this feeling by accident in everyday life—not online—whether it’s in the middle of a haircut when the hairdresser carefully massages their head or at a doctor’s appointment when the physician gently touches their swollen glands, Richard says. And then there’s the painter Bob Ross, whose ‘80s TV show, The Joy of Painting, is surprisingly popular among people who experience ASMR. Part of the appeal comes from Ross’s soothing voice, gentle gaze, and smooth brush strokes. “I remember being 10 years old and sitting in front of the TV, and I knew there was something soothing about him,” Richard says. “I never saw him finish a painting. I always fell asleep, and I’m not even interested in art.”
Many of the ASMR videos mimic real-life situations that elicit the tingling sensation, everything from a trip to the spa or a visit to the doctor. Regardless of the scene, one thing is certain about ASMR videos: They’re wildly popular on YouTube. GentleWhispering has more than 88 million views and 400,000 subscribers. Other top ASMR channels (Ephemeral Rift and Massage ASMR, for example), also have millions of views and thousands of subscribers.
The phenomenon has started to creep into pop culture too. Actress Molly Shannon mentioned ASMR in an interview with Conan O’Brien and said she experiences “head orgasms” while getting TSA pat-downs, and house musician Deadmau5 sampled from GentleWhispering videos in his song “Terrors in My Head.”
What Does Science Have to Say?
As ASMR becomes more mainstream, it has started to pop up as a conversation in scientific circles too. In fact, the first peer-reviewed study on the topic was published at the end of March by researchers at Swansea University in the U.K.
In many ways, the findings of the report echo the existing anecdotal evidence about ASMR’s triggers and its impact on the body: The most common triggers of ASMR were whispering (75 percent), personal attention (69 percent), and crisp sounds (64 percent), which can be anything from tapping fingernails to unwinding a roll of aluminum foil. When the researchers looked into the reason people seek out ASMR, the study participants almost unanimously agreed they do it to relax (98 percent). Many also watch ASMR videos to help them sleep (82 percent) and ease stress (70 percent).
Another crystal-clear finding from this survey: The majority of people don’t watch ASMR videos for sexual arousal, despite what nicknames like “braingasm” might make you believe. “You first look at these videos with beautiful women and their gentle gaze and think they might be going in an adult direction,” says Nick Davis, one of the study’s authors and a professor of psychology at Swansea University. “We found that ASMR is much more about personal intimacy than sexual intimacy.”
We still don’t know what’s happening neurologically to cause the sensation, or the reason why some people react to these triggers while others don’t. Researchers in the recent study noted that ASMR shows similarities to flow state and synesthesia, two well-known neurological conditions. Flow state is often associated with athletes being in the zone, and synesthesia is the condition where people blend senses (like seeing a letter and thinking of a color), Davis says. But because the study dealt with a small sample size, no definitive connections could be made.
Others scientists have hypothesized that ASMR could be a series of small seizures or could be similar to the parent-infant bonding, where the watcher takes on the role of the child being comforted by the ASMRtist. Even with this new research, both Richard and Davis agree that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to studying ASMR.