What is ASMR? A Guide By a Fellow Newbie

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I went down the rabbit hole of the world of YouTube ASMR videos to better understand the phenomenon. It was… spine-tingling, but not always in a bad way.

Life is stressful. We all know it. There is no escaping it. You can’t sleep, you can’t think; sometimes, you aren’t able to function because of the stress. The only thing anybody has time for is a quick pitstop on YouTube. And that is exactly where stressed out individuals are heading these days, particularly at 10:30pm, according to Google, to find videos to help them relax.
Many of these videos are related to the search term ‘ASMR’ and the content of the videos tend to be about mundane things – folding napkins, tapping on furniture – or include repetitive sounds. Somehow, these videos are getting tons of hits and leading brands are getting into the act. What is going on here? I decided to find out.

What is ASMR?

Do you feel calm now? Source: Buzzfeed

ASMR, a term I learnt about only a month ago but didn’t dare Google for fear of what it would mean, actually stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Oh look, no double entendre! What a relief.
The term was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010, to explain the pleasant, almost euphoric, tingling sensation at the back of one’s head and spine when hearing certain sounds or being exposed to specific visuals. I didn’t know such sensations could be pleasant but that was probably because I hadn’t yet encountered them.
Now, ASMR is not technically a clinical term; Allen created it because she realised that people needed a term of reference for what they were feeling. You can read this interview with her for more on her ASMR research.
ASMR is hardly a new phenomenon. People say that Bob Ross, the painter best known in the USA for his soothing morning TV show, may have actually been the unknown King of ASMR. The sensation exists in everyday life and could explain why human beings react to certain stimuli the way they do. For instance, the sounds of the road outside a bedroom window can be soothing to one person but distracting to another. It is also similar to the various relaxation techniques people undertake – massages, meditation with ambient music – to help them cope with stress and anxiety.
No matter how much digging I did on the internet, there has not been much scientific research on the phenomenon yet. What research has been done shows reactions to stimuli differ but that most ASMRists (as they are called) can be divided into set categories. Scientists believe that only a certain kind of people are sensitive to ASMR – those who are open-minded, introverted or neurotic (oh dear!).

What Kinds of ASMR Videos Are There?

If you type in ASMR on YouTube, you are going to be overwhelmed because there are so many videos. For the sake of your sanity, don’t do it! Here’s my brief run-down of the various categories.
The most popular category relates to relaxing sounds. There are tons of YouTube channels dedicated to gentle whispering which is meant to help people destress. The comments under these whispering videos are full of grateful and elated customers. I have to say the whispering is… not my thing. It is, in fact, the very opposite of my thing. I couldn’t bear it for more than a few seconds. It feels too intimate and borderline creepy. Probably doesn’t help that I patently do not like the sound of people.

You know the feeling. Source: Tumblr

But, lots of people love it! The whispering makes for great background noise, especially when you want to sleep, simulating a congenial human-filled environment. I can see the appeal even if it isn’t something I personally like.
Another branch of the whispering ASMR videos is role-playing where artists role-play game characters or doctors or hair-dressers. I am unsure what this is for but I found it deeply uncomfortable. If this is your jam, please explain it to me!
Other ASMRtists (that’s what they’re called, I’m not making it up) have created videos of just sounds – tapping, slicing, scratching. The artists use powerful microphones to pick up the sounds of their fingers tapping on tables or metal vases, clicking beads, scraping wood or cutting soap. It can be quite pleasant but there is this non-organic feel to these videos that just doesn’t work for me. Having said that, if you just want to focus on something to relax your mind, these videos are great. They don’t require you to participate, just absorb what’s happening and energise your brain.

Ambient Sounds

You know what the whispering videos reminded me of? Ambient sound videos. There are so many of them on YouTube – rain, the sea, nature. I keep them on in the background while I write and they work wonders for my concentration. Seriously, you should try it. They are particularly effective if you don’t want absolute silence but also find music distracting.
My favourites are the videos of sounds from space (I’m listening to it right now as I write this). It’s technically just whirring noises interspersed with beeps but one can imagine hearing these sounds if you were out on a spacewalk. That kind of white noise is brilliant for sleep or to help calm down your anxiety.
I have also found some brilliant geek ambient sound videos. There are videos set in Hogwarts, Rivendell, the Death Star and, most popularly, on Star Trek ships. These videos usually have no movement, incorporating a static image of the ships’ bridges, crew quarters or engineering, wherever the video is set, with a series of sounds looped over for a period of time, anything between an hour to eight hours. Many of these ambient videos were created specifically to help people with insomnia so, they tend to be long.

As a fan of Star Trek, it is quite cool to imagine you’re doing your everyday job sitting in Voyager’s Engineering or the Enterprise bridge. Interestingly, some of these videos do contain whispering but they didn’t bother me. Maybe because the whispering in these videos is ambient and just one of the many sounds we hear?
These ambient sound videos have a more pronounced effect than listening to a single song on loop (does anyone else do that?). When you’re listening to a song, you’re engaged in the rhythm and melody and lyrics, but keep listening to it for a while and it becomes background noise.
Songs, however, are much more dynamic, so, even though they can disappear into the back of your consciousness, it’s still engaging part of your brain. Better to listen to ambient sounds if you want to concentrate.

Sights and Sounds

ASMR is not limited to sounds. The reason I even came across ASMR in the first place was because I saw an article which featured pictures of colour-coordinated objects. This led to a set of gifs on Pinterest of dominos placed in intricate designs falling perfectly, which led me to videos of very colourful blocks of sand being sliced. Suddenly, I found myself mesmerised. More ‘research’ ensued.
Have you even heard of kinetic sand? I hadn’t until I saw these videos on Pinterest and then on Instagram. It is a kind of sludgy wet sand that adheres well to itself and can be easily shaped. It is sold as a toy in many places. All I cared about was how pretty it looked! So many colours and those symmetrical blocks and spheres… perfect! I like order in my chaos and that is what I got from the kinetic sand videos. Because the videos were generally about slicing those sand blocks neatly, I was hooked.

View this post on Instagram

Hey everyone, just cutting up a Kinetic Sand sushi roll. Most people think “raw fish” when you mention sushi, but it’s just rice prepared a certain way and shaped with other yummy ingredients (without fish or even seafood if you don’t want it). If you get it from a good place it’s amazing! This was a one shot video but next time i know to put much more color in the center ?? — ? Be sure to Subscribe to my youtube channel for longer videos. Link is in my bio.? — #sandtagious #kineticsand #KineticSandisfying #talisatossell #sandvideo #satisfying #satisfyingvideos #satisfyingvideo #satisfied #satisfaction #sand #relax #sleepaid #asmr #asmrsand #calming #crunchysand #oddlysatisfying #madmattr #sushi

A post shared by Sandtagious (@sand.tagious) on

You can watch the videos for their sheer artistry, but if you put the volume up, the experience can be an even more engaging experience. I loved the silicon crunch of the knife slicing through the sand. Of course, I have since figured out that ASMR is the reason for my attraction to these videos.
The sand videos are part of a larger category of ‘Oddly Satisfying Videos’ on YouTube. You will definitely have come across one of the many compilations of such videos. Alongside sand, there are also videos of colourful slime being poked. The slime colours are beautiful but the sound of the slime is a bit gross for me, unfortunately.

There are also videos of paint-mixing, glass-blowing, candle carving, candy making and soap carving. And, talking about soap, videos of people destroying soap, especially the lush, multi-coloured soaps, have become quite popular. I admit I follow one of these soap-destroyers on Instagram.

Why Are We Hearing About This Now?

This is a really good question but nobody has a proper answer for it. However, the popularity of ASMR has grown exponentially in the past three years and, according to Google, there are over 5 million ASMR videos online. Huge brands have joined the bandwagon. KFC made an ASMR whispering video. IKEA made a 25-minute video featuring a whispery voiceover talking about IKEA products as a disembodied arm smooths out a bed-sheet, places clothes in a closet and taps fingers on a table.
ASMR itself is not a trend. It has been a part of human life for ages; we just didn’t have a term for why certain sensations relaxed us. Think bubble wrap. That feeling of satisfaction when you burst those bubbles? That’s ASMR. Do you know anyone who doesn’t like bursting bubble wrap? No, because everybody loves it. The only difference between someone bursting bubble wrap they find lying around and someone actively seeking out ASMR videos is the need for stimuli and the intensity of the sensory experience. It differs from person to person but we all have it.
I have to say, ‘researching’ this article has been fun (except the whisper videos, which were definitely not fun!). I shall now leave you to explore the wonderful world of ASMR videos on your own. Enjoy!

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