As a platform, YouTube is not known for its subtlety. At any given point, billions of users are competing for clicks with eye-popping, colorful thumbnails, and all-caps, high-octane, SEO-driven headlines (“5 MCRIBS IN 5 MINUTES MCDONALD’S MUKBANG CHALLENGE”). But the early days of YouTube were quieter. Much quieter.
One of the most popular subgenres on YouTube is ASMR, short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. A little-understood neurological phenomenon, ASMR refers to a pleasurable, tingling sensation throughout the scalp, neck, and spine. According to the available research, which is currently limited, some people report experiencing it quite strongly, while others say they don’t experience it at all. Even for those who do experience it, the effects appear to be quite wide-ranging: While some people compare it to having “brain tingles,” others liken it to having a full-on “brain orgasm.” We do, however, know that ASMR is triggered by a specific yet wide-ranging set of aural and visual stimuli, such as tapping, scratching, whispering, brushing, lip-smacking, or watching someone paint or draw.
Since the term ASMR was coined in 2010 by healthcare IT consultant Jennifer Allen, YouTube has served as the hub of the community. Over the past decade, the ASMR community has grown from a handful of YouTubers (also known as ASMRtists) derided as fetishists to a full-on movement, with ASMR videos amassing billions of total views. It’s inspired Super Bowl commercials, scenes in Emma Stone movies, Grammy-award-winning albums, and a W Magazine series featuring celebrities from Cardi B to Margot Robbie. And unlike most internet-driven communities and memes, the ASMR community has not only survived the ever-churning viral news cycle, but snowballed at an exponential rate, to the point that it is now bordering on mainstream.
To track the birth and unprecedented growth of ASMR, Rolling Stone spoke to ASMRtists, researchers, therapists, and advertising industry executives to tell the story of the community in their own (quiet) words.
Prologue: What Does ASMR Feel Like?
WhispersRed, YouTuber: I start with a sparkly, tingly sensation in my head, at the top, and then if I’m really lucky it works its way down the back of my head.
Curt Ramsey, LPC, therapist: I get this kind of fuzzy, tingly feeling in my scalp.
EphemeralRift, YouTuber: It’s like a pleasant, electric kind of goosebumps, but without the harshness of the goosebumps, the chills, that uncomfortableness. It’s more of a warm, pleasant sensation.
Amalzd, YouTuber: I don’t know how to say this politely. It’s very much like an orgasm for your brain.
ASMR stimuli can be broken down into four categories. Touch:
HeatherFeather, YouTuber: When someone plays with your hair, or massages your head.
Curt Ramsey: Any sort of touching of my hand or face.
Dr. Craig Richard,Shenandoah University, founder of ASMR University and author of Brain Tingles: I remember being a kid and just not wanting to go to bed. Reading stories didn’t work, whatever it was my mother would try just wouldn’t work. But taking her finger and just lightly just almost tracing lines on the inside of my forearm would turn my head to fuzz. It was magical.
Dr. Richard: The most common types of voices are soft voices or whispering into the mic. It can also be sounds of items, like crinkling of paper, or brushing sounds.
WhispersRed: The sound of the marbles, when we used to play with marbles on the playground.
Curt Ramsey: Tapping sounds and materials, just a slow, slow exploration of the sounds of materials.
Maria, a.k.a. GentleWhispering, YouTuber/ASMRtist: Personal attention, one-on-one connection, when you feel like you are the center of the situation.
Curt Ramsey: Gentle hand movements and perceived face touching.
And the informal fourth category:
HeatherFeather: Watching [PBS’ Joy of Painting host] Bob Ross.
Dr. Richard: I remember coming home from high school and turning on Bob Ross. He would turn my brain to fuzz and I would fall asleep on the floor.
Trigger 1: Whispering
I. “Weird Sensation Feels Good”: How ASMR Became ASMR
Most people who report experiencing ASMR describe it as a feeling they’ve had since as early as they can remember, but never told anyone about it for fear of being judged or having people view the sensation as sexual. But no one actually put a name to the sensation until 2010, when Jennifer Allen, then a healthcare IT tech working in upstate New York, stumbled on a 2007 forum discussion on the website SteadyHealth.com. The thread, “Weird Sensation Feels Good,” was full of anonymous posters describing what some referred to as “brain tingles”; others, as a “head orgasm.”
HeatherFeather: I used to call it “shocks” when I would describe it to my mom. She had no idea what that meant, so I stopped talking about it. Then as I got older, I would hang out with my friends and we’d go out to restaurants and a waitress or someone would have a nice voice, and I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, that waitress’s voice was so nice.” And they’d be like, “Oh, are you into girls?” And I’d be like, “Wait, what do you mean, you don’t feel this too?” And they’d say no, and then I would stop talking about it again.
GentleWhispering: I kept mentioning throughout my life that I would get little weird tickles or “this is kind of ticklish” [when my ASMR was triggered], and people would just look at me a little weird. Like they didn’t know exactly what I was talking about. So I would just usually drop the topic.
Jennifer Allen: The first time I experienced it, I was 19 and I was working my first desk job. And I remember experiencing the sensation, and I spent a lot of time searching and trying to find any details. I would try different angles — I’d search, like, “sensations of tingling in the head” or “waves of euphoria” and none of this really pulled up anything. And I don’t think I saw anything until I started seeing the forums discussion… Before, I’d thought, ‘Well, geez, I might have a brain tumor,’ or ‘maybe I’m just weird.’ And when I saw that [thread], I finally felt validated that this was something I was genuinely experiencing. I didn’t have a brain tumor. Well, actually, no one was sure in the beginning. There were a lot of people who worried, like, ‘What if we’re all really sick.’ But it felt better to be around people who got it, at least.
Emboldened to know she wasn’t alone, Allen suggested starting a Facebook group where people could talk about this strange, unnamed sensation. To do that, however, she knew she needed to come up with a name.
Jennifer Allen: “Autonomous” was my way of saying it seems to be very individualistic, and in some cases, actually controllable by the person. [Then I] wanted to signify something that indicated a peak of an experience because it was a very intense, climactic experience, but I didn’t want to say “climax.” So I sat there for a while looking at thesaurus suggestions and finally, I saw “meridian” and I was like, that’s kind of perfect because meridian kind of speaks to the concept of Chinese meridians or energy meridians. “Sensory” was of the senses, and it was a very sensory sort of experience, and then “response” meaning that it was a response to something, it wasn’t a constant state essentially. So that’s how I came up with it.
Trigger 2: Brushing
II: “Speak Up, Why You Whispering?”: How Big Brother Led to the Birth of the Whisper Community
In 2009, the very first “whispering” video, a precursor to ASMR, was posted onto YouTube. The video was an audio-only clip just under two minutes long, featuring a woman whispering in a British accent against a black background. “I thought I’d make a video of me whispering because I love hearing people whisper which is really, really weird,” the woman, WhisperingLife, says in the clip. The popularity of WhisperingLife’s videos prompted a few dozen other YouTubers to make their own so-called “whispering” videos .
WhisperingLife, YouTuber: I was watching YouTube and came across Big Brother 8 videos where they were whispering to each other. A few people in the comments said, “Oh gosh, that’s so relaxing.” I went on and searched for more whispering and there was nothing more out there, so why not make my own? There were a few people saying it was really weird and, “Speak up, why you whispering?” But overall the reaction was quite positive. I commented on the Big Brother 8 video saying I’d just made my channel, and people came over to my channel from that video.
QueenOfSerene, YouTuber: There was a girl who would literally put her phone on her table. She had a pile of Epsom salts on her table and she’d pick it up and drop it. Banal as it sounds, it was mesmerizing to me.
HeatherFeather: A lot of the videos were showing makeup, putting makeup on, or chatting with a friend, type of thing, or someone’s just talking or showing a collection of something that they had.
QueenOfSerene: It was such a small group of people. There was no money involved.
WhispersRed: It used to be every time a new creator started, everyone would know who they were. You would go, oh wow, someone else has started this week.
Amalzd: We would have actually these group chat things on… I don’t even know what the server was. We would go in there in a private chat room and just all talk or Skype. Some of us had the same people that would hate-watch us that we would just talk about, “What is this person doing?” We were able to bond over something that was new and it was almost like a secret.
Trigger 3: Crinkling
III. A “Secret Corner of the Internet”: The ASMR Community Gets a Voice
By the end of 2010, Allen’s Facebook group, “ASMR Research & Support,” had a little more than 100 members. A handful of people from the scientific community, including a serotonin researcher from Australia, had filtered in to posit their own potential explanations for what was causing the so-called “brain tingles.” Another contingent of the group was more spiritual in nature, less interested in finding answers and more interested in the metaphysical implications of the sensation. At around this time, many people in the group started to increasingly post “whisper” videos, claiming they triggered their ASMR. Creators began using the tag “ASMR” when uploading their videos.
WhisperingLife: I thought it was great there was a name for it. Before if you’d said, “I like whispering and I like tapping,” people would be like, “that sounds a bit off.” But now you could say, “Well, actually it’s called ASMR, and this is why I like it,” that made it more acceptable.
Gibi ASMR, YouTuber: It felt like this secret corner of the internet.
One of these early whisperers was Maria, or GentleWhispering, a blonde woman then in her early twenties who emigrated to America from Russia and is widely known as the grande dame of ASMR. Her most popular video, which is more than seven years old, has 22 million views.
Melinda Lauw, creator of WhisperLodge, a live ASMR company: I loved Maria GentleWhispering from the very beginning. I liked that she had a bit of an accent. She seems quite caring and genuine. It’s not like a character she’s doing.
Amalzd: When you think ASMR, that’s who you think of. She’s like the Michael Jackson of ASMR.
QueenOfSerene: Back then we didn’t even show our faces. It was taboo. Creators would have this thing called a “face reveal” which would get a million views because people were dying to know what creators looked like.
GentleWhispering: I noticed that nobody was really playing out a role-play on the camera, they were back then just speaking behind the black screen. So not a lot of people were actually engaging in the video format, as they do right now. So I started doing that.
QueenOfSerene: When Maria started showing her face, it was pornographic in some sense. People were like, “Oh, she’s showing her face.”…without a doubt, it was a turning point in the ASMR community.
HeatherFeather: I remember talking to Maria about it, and how she said that people really were upset with her for showing her face in videos and making ASMR videos as opposed to ASMR audio posts. She got a lot of backlash for that.
QueenOfSerene: [But then] I think it created a perfect storm so people wanted to get out there and show their faces.
HeatherFeather: Then more in-depth roleplays started happening, where people started getting more creative with what they could do with their videos.
QueenOfSerene: Looking right into the camera is a scary thing to do. That goes away because you get such positive feedback from people, but sister, it’s strange. It’s a weird feeling at first. It’s you and your camera in your living room, and you’re sweet-talking it, rubbing its back.
Trigger 4: Lip smacking
IV: The “Is It Sexual”? Question
From the very beginning, most people automatically assumed that ASMR was sexual, and that “whispering” videos were catering to a fetish of some sort. This assumption was made by outsiders even from the early days of the community, causing those within it to become defensive, says Jenn Allen. Occasionally, some users on the SteadyHealth thread use the term “head orgasms” to describe ASMR, which would immediately be followed by “people who immediately put a 12-page defense of how this was not sexual.” It didn’t help that most of the more popular content creators, especially in the beginning, were young, attractive women.
Jennifer Allen: From the beginning, it was very clear that people were extremely uncomfortable talking about it, even in an anonymous health forum. They’d say, “Yeah, I was talking to my family member and they laughed at me,” or, “somebody thought it was a weird, creepy fetish or like some kind of sex thing.”
Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes co-director: It stimulates your senses in a way. It causes a physical response. I would say that is sensual, though maybe not necessarily sexual.
WhispersRed: You’re coming close to the camera and it’s very, very quiet and calm and slow. Every facial expression shows, and you’re so close up. When we see that in regular media that we’ve grown up with, it’s usually in a sexual way. So it looks strange from that perspective.
EphemeralRift: Being a guy whispering, I think that was a bit of a hurdle to get over. Because it’s just not something that happens. I mean, people don’t sit around the house and just start whispering. My dad doesn’t just whisper to me, or my brothers. Nobody you hang out with just goes (whispers) “Hey, what do you think about the NFL game?” It’s this kind of private thing.
Most of the available research on ASMR, however, refutes that it is sexual in any way.
Craig Richard: We ask people how they feel during ASMR. We have responses from over 20,000 people who experience ASMR, and we give them a list of responses — “relaxed,” “scared,” “comforted,” “sexually aroused” — and they can check off all the different feelings they have. What we see is less than 10% check the box for sexual arousal, but greater than 90% check the box for “relaxed.”
WhisperingLife: How can you be relaxed when you’re aroused? It’s just completely mental to me.
As the community grew and ASMRtists like GentleWhispering started racking up hundreds of thousands, of subscribers, however, it didn’t take long for newer YouTubers to start orchestrating sexualized roleplay scenarios in order to get more views. To a degree, say some ASMRtists, this makes sense: Given the intimacy inherent in most ASMR videos, as GentleWhispering put it, “honestly, it’s no brainer to include whispers and some kind of sexual or sensual element to it.” This subgenre, occasionally referred to as “erotic ASMR,” has been around since the early 2010s — yet it caused a sizable rift, one that lingers to this day.
QueenOfSerene: I was truly bothered by YouTubers who sexualized themselves in these videos. It pissed me off like nothing else. It even had a lot to do with me leaving the community for a few years.
WhispersRed: It’s disappointing from my point of view, because I work really hard for the community’s sake as well as my own to normalize ASMR and understand it and the depth of what it is as a physical sensation. I’ve got children, and they’ve come home from school and said some child went up to them and said, “Your mum makes porn videos.” They’ve had to stand up for themselves and say, “No, my mum’s not doing that.”
GentleWhispering: In the beginning, I tried including sensual elements into the audios specifically. I’ve since stopped doing that…I think it’s completely normal, and there’s a whole genre in ASMR with content creators who combine both. I think it’s beautiful for whoever wants to watch that. [But] I think it’s quite clear in channels like my own nowadays that there’s really not intended sexual innuendo.
This stigma also manifested itself in early media coverage of ASMR, much of which was sensationalized or focused on its popular female creators. A 2012 Vice article, for instance, discussed the “almost disturbingly sensual” elements of ASMR-tagged YouTube videos
HeatherFeather: YouTubers and the media would make fun of what we did and portray it as sexual.
WhispersRed: I’ve been on a TV show in the UK called This Morning and the producers were lovely with me and I thought, “Wow, they really understand it now.” There we are, on the TV, and they introduced me on the lower third on the screen with [something like]: “Whisper porn: have you tried it?” And there I am sitting on the stool waiting for the camera to come to me, and the camera comes to me and I’m thinking, “Oh hell, what’s going on here?” I went over to one of the main interviewers and used a head massager on his head, and as soon as I started doing that they started to play Barry White music over the top, so everyone was laughing. What started off as a genuine interview request and should’ve been great exposure for ASMR just turned out to be a joke, really. I felt drained, exhausted, and duped, and it really upset the ASMR community.
Trigger 5: Soft speaking
V: Going Mainstream
After years languishing in what commenters called “the weird corner of the internet,” ASMRtists started to notice something strange happening: they were going mainstream. In 2015, searches for ASMR grew 200%, and they’ve been consistently growing year over year.
Emma WhispersRed: About three years ago, it started getting big.
GentleWhispering: We had a huge rush of new people subscribing.
Amalzd: That was the peak, when it was really rising. Videos were getting mad views, right after I’d just put them up.
In the early days, it would have been inconceivable for most YouTubers to view ASMR as anything other than a hobby. But YouTubers like Gibi ASMR and GentleWhispering were quitting their day jobs and racking up millions of subscribers, resulting in tons of ad revenue (though no ASMRtist who spoke to Rolling Stone would specify just how much). It helped that YouTube channels like PewDiePie and Rooster Teeth, both of whom had spotlighted ASMRtists in the past, were amassing tremendous audiences of predominantly 18- to 25-year-old viewers, making YouTube a hub of youth culture.
HeatherFeather: There was a third wave of creators like Gibi and ASMR Darling [who was featured on PewDiePie’s channel in 2016] who came in, who brought the youth into the fold.
Ben Deaney: You kind of saw YouTube culture, content creation culture, picking up. Those two things happening simultaneously, I think, is what led to a big influx of new creators.
HeatherFeather: Kids are not ashamed of what they like. Kids are passionate about what they like, and they make fan pages. And they stan for things and they promote it. And so they came into ASMR and they began stanning ASMRtists, and that I think helped bring a lot more public validation to it.
Melinda Lauw: It grew from this niche strange thing on the internet to a recognized genre or thing that people do.
It even started making its way into mainstream film culture, most noticeably in the 2017 Emma Stone and Steve Carell film Battle of the Sexes, which may feature the first ASMR-inspired film sequence of all time: a scene in which Billie Jean (Stone) first meets her hairdresser and future lover, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Co-directors Valerie Dayton and Jonathan Faris worked closely together with sound mixing in post-production to add scissor sounds in surround to recreate the experience of sitting in a hairdresser’s chair, instructing Riseborough and Stone to speak in soft voices.
Valerie Faris, co-director, Battle of the Sexes: Everyone knows this feeling of being in a chair and having someone touching your hair and shampooing it and talking to you and being more in your intimate personal space. We wanted to elicit those feelings as much as we could so you could be put in Billie Jean’s experience.
Jonathan Dayton, co-director, Battle of the Sexes: We wanted to see if we could create an ASMR experience in a movie theater.
Valerie Faris: The one scene more than any other in the film people talk about is the haircut scene. [ASMR is] something people really recognize, whether they know it or not.
Brands also started knocking, particularly following a landmark ad for Michelob Light Ultra Gold, touted as the first USDA-certified organic beer.
Fred Levron, worldwide creative partner, FCB Global: We felt that it would be amazing for the most natural brand to try to give hundreds of millions of people in America 45 seconds of a pure organic experience, during a moment where everything is so loud and every commercial is in your face. We wanted to give them a break from all of that.
The ad, which featured Zoe Kravitz whispering and tapping gently on a bottle while sitting in the middle of a Hawaiian rainforest, quickly went viral. According to Azania Andrews, the VP of marketing for Michelob Ultra, sales volume for the beer grew in the triple digits following the airing of the ad. It also had the effect of introducing the ASMR community to an entirely new audience.
GentleWhispering: We had a huge rush of people subscribing at that time during the Super Bowl after that advertisement because people never heard of ASMR before. And it brought a lot of people to our community too.
Fred Levron: It was the perfect moment where it was big enough to tap into existing audience but it was not known by mainstream audience.
Gibi ASMR: I had like 10 emails from brands the day after being like, “We’re doing ASMR now.” I was like, “I see how it is.”
ASMR also started showing up in popular music, most noticeably in Billie Eilish’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Gibi ASMR: Billie Eilish plus ASMR has been brought up a lot. Her unique singing voice has been brought up a lot. It’s a little bit quieter and more relaxing. So there’s a pretty natural connection to the ASMR world.
Dr. Craig Richard: When there’s things like Billie Eilish winning Grammy singer of the year, who is referred to as having an ASMR style to her singing, this is all increasing the awareness of ASMR.
This connection was cemented by a cover version of the album by Gibi ASMR, an ASMRtist with more than two million subscribers, which Gibi says was facilitated by Eilish’s record label reaching out to her.
Gibi ASMR: I don’t know if she ever saw the video. I’ve definitely heard an interview of her being like “I don’t whisper,” almost that she’s annoyed people keep comparing her to ASMRtists and saying she whispers. Because she is singing. But I think it is unique. It sounds like she’s very close to the microphone, like the same thing we do. And it sounds really good.
VI: ASMRtists and YouTube: A Troubled Relationship
As creators slowly started flocking to the platform, an intense debate grew over whether ASMRtists should monetize their channels by showing ads before videos. At the very beginning, commenters, who largely used the videos to relax or fall asleep, would be incensed if they saw creators show what they viewed as loud, disruptive ads with videos. There was also pushback over ASMR being potentially viewed as a capitalistic enterprise.
The perceived sexual connotations of ASMR also led to YouTubers experiencing issues with the platform itself. Every ASMRtist Rolling Stone spoke with said they had at some point been flagged or demonetized for “sexual content,” despite the genre bringing in a combined billions of views.
HeatherFeather: There were some creators and lots of viewers who were very anti-ads, because there’s this perception that if you make ASMR videos, you’re an angel who doesn’t need to eat or pay bills.
Amalzd: Some people got mad because they’re like, “You shouldn’t profit off of ASMR. You’re belittling it.” Which I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, if you’re a musician and you get paid to sing, you can still love singing.
Ben Deaney, ASMRtist manager: People really care about it being a pure thing.
HeatherFeather: Patreon was a big debate too, and female ASMRtists took the brunt of that backlash, even though male artists were the first ones to use Patreon. But as soon as female creators started doing it, it was, “This woman ruined ASMR. They turned ASMR into a commercial thing.”
The monetization of ASMR, however controversial it may have been at first, became increasingly acceptable as ASMR became popularized — but with monetization came the threat of demonetization, which has always hung over creators’ heads.
HeatherFeather: The media has perpetuated this “ASMR is sexual braingasm” clickbait-type thing. And that’s been really harmful to us. Because it lets YouTube have a lot of leverage over us.
WhispersRed: YouTube has not treated the ASMR community particularly well, I feel. It’s been up and down.
Amalzd: People I know, they would have a regular video, nothing sexual. Their hands would just be showing. And it would get flagged [as inappropriate by YouTube] if it had “ASMR whisper” or something in the title.
Gibi ASMR: The one that bothered me the most is I was a nurse wearing scrubs, and the script I did was 100% based off an experience I’d had a week before when I was at the doctor. I was wearing scrubs, and I did exactly what the nurse did to me. I’m like, “You’re telling me this is sexual? Should I file a lawsuit against my doctor?” It was very offensive to me.
WhispersRed: It’s an algorithm. It’s a computer. In some ways it’s completely the opposite of what ASMR is about. ASMR is a physical sensation and a tool for connection with people. But we’re on a platform that encourages people to be algorithm-minded and views, views, views.
Gibi ASMR: Probably a year or so ago, everything was getting demonetized and we had no idea why. And it was like, “Is ASMR over? Can none of us make a living off of this? What are we gonna do?” You’re just at their mercy and they can demonetize you, they can do whatever they want. You have no contract, nothing.
WhispersRed: The other day YouTube had a tweet that said “#SeduceMeInFourWords Autonomous sensory meridian response.” So basically the fact they were saying “seduce” just shows whoever wrote that tweet within YouTube doesn’t understand ASMR at all.
Gibi ASMR: We’re like “YouTube, you’re so dumb. Honestly, you don’t get it.”
LifeWithMak, a 14-year-old YouTuber with 1.6 million subscribers, briefly left the platform after 12 of her videos were taken down for allegedly violating the platform’s guidelines, including one viral video in which she ate a honeycomb in what the platform deemed a “suggestive” manner.
LifeWithMak: My honeycomb video got deleted for inappropriate content and I was like what? How? I’m wearing reindeer pajamas. How is that inappropriate? I don’t understand.
In a statement, YouTube said: “We don’t have policies against ASMR content, in fact we welcome it on YouTube.” The platform added that “in the case of advertising, like all content on YouTube, ASMR content must meet our advertising guidelines to be eligible to run ads.”
Additionally, like for so many communities on social media, harassment has also long been a problem for ASMRtists.
HeatherFeather: There’s always been violent threats. There’s always been threats of rape.
Ben Deaney: We had an issue this morning, actually, where people were sending deepfakes of creators to brands they worked with.
Amalzd: They would say crazy things like “go back to where you came from, jihadi.” Or I get so many comments like, “Oh, if you’re Middle Eastern, why aren’t you wearing a hijab?”
HeatherFeather: A lot of people try to shield their viewers from anything, quote unquote ugly. You’re working so hard on creating content for people to relax to, so you don’t want them to see things that won’t relax them. And then there’s the safety element where if you speak publicly about something, you could also draw a lot of ire from those who are trying to harm you. So, I think a lot of people keep what goes on behind the scenes hidden so it doesn’t hurt them more.
Trigger 6: Page turning
VII: ASMR: Art Form, Entertainment, or Therapy?
What garnered less attention in the early days than the potential sexualized elements of ASMR was that people were using ASMR videos for therapeutic purposes. Many commenters said they struggled with anxiety; others, with depression or PTSD. Most dealt with insomnia or difficulty sleeping in some way.
GentleWhispering: I get comments from people from every walk of life honestly, from single mothers, to firefighters, or emergency workers, and they share just how much stress they go through every day and how little of sanity they have at the end of the day. And when they listen to ASMR videos, they’re able to finally calm down and just relax.
Amalzd: I had a lady write me one time and she said that she watched my videos while giving birth, and that that helped her give birth and made her calm. I’ve never forgotten that.
QueenOfSerene: One guy told me he was in Afghanistan and he told me the guys’ names in his troop and what videos they liked and things about them, what they would do, and that they’d gather around and watch it. To me that was intense because what they were dealing with was some serious stuff. The thought of all these grown, tough men off to fight in a war and at night they’re putting on my little lady videos, doing their makeup and stuff — I just got tickled at that.
HeatherFeather: Someone on Reddit wrote to me and said that they were a person who had served in some kind of armed forces, and that they had PTSD, and that my videos helped them go from sleeping on the floor to sleeping back in bed again. You just feel you’re connecting to people in a real way.
QueenOfSerene: [When I joined the ASMR community] I had a pain pill addiction, and I was recovering from that. I had gone to rehabilitation and I was trying to find ways to fill my life. And for months and months while I was getting well, it was hard to go to sleep. So when people write to me and say, “You helped me with PTSD,” I know it’s not BS. Because I lived through that.
GentleWhispering: We’re not really legally supposed to say this, but it definitely feels very therapeutic. Even when I make my own videos, I feel the effect of it. Just myself slowing down for other people helps me in the moment too.
Emma WhispersRed: [In the winter of 2010] I had a car accident and lots of operations and I couldn’t take care of my children and I needed lots of help. It was an awful time. I was in a wheelchair for a long time. When my body started to work and I could walk again I was experiencing PTSD, but I didn’t realize it was PTSD. I thought I was just a tired mum. I was searching for ocean sounds to help me sleep or meditations, and eventually I came across ASMR videos. They were talking about mental health and being really open about it. Depression, PTSD, and all these things that I started to observe myself and I started realizing I had a problem. I didn’t even think I had a problem before then. I was just living this half life. And that’s when I went for help. So it really did change my whole life, the ASMR community.
For years, creators have been rallying for more research into the potentially therapeutic use of ASMR. The very first peer-reviewed study was published out of Swansea University in 2015, surveying 475 participants about their triggers and their physiological experiences with the sensation; of those who used ASMR for chronic pain (19% of participants), 42% said watching ASMR videos had an effect on their symptoms. A 2016 study used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to study the brains of people who experienced ASMR versus those who did not, finding there was more functional connectivity in the brains of the former group than the latter group. But such studies have tended to be quite small, and many researchers and medical professionals remain skeptical about the potential therapeutic uses of ASMR.
Whitney Roban, PhD, family and corporate sleep specialist: There is still, to this date, not enough scientific data to prove that [ASMR is therapeutic].
Dr. Richard: The skepticism is appropriate. That’s what drives science.
Dr. Roban: The limited research does provide evidence that ASMR may be effective at improving anxiety, depression, PTSD, and sleep; however, much of that research is from self-reports of people who consider themselves ASMR sensitive.
One 2018 study with a sample size of 10 individuals shed some light on what exactly happens in the brain when people experience ASMR. The experiment, which was co-led by Dr. Richard, put subjects in an MRI and showed them ASMR videos, asking them to push a button when they experienced so-called “tingles.”
Dr. Richard: There were some main brain areas that were more activated compared to the non-tingle moments. One of the major ones is the medial prefrontal cortex, and that is known to respond to oxytocin and is an area that is associated with affiliative behaviors or social behaviors such as grooming. Another region is very strongly associated with reward behaviors and dopamine, which basically means when that region of the brain is lit up, something good is happening.
Dr. Roban: It’s an interesting study. Dopamine actually works in diminishing melatonin production in the brain. It does leave me to question the effectiveness of ASMR specifically for insomnia and other sleep problems. It might be that ASMR is effective for relaxation, which is definitely an important precursor to sleep; however, ASMR videos should not be used just prior to falling asleep, as we want our melatonin production to increase, not decrease.
Though the sample size was extremely small, the results provide some support to Richard’s current working theory that ASMR could be an evolutionary response related to so-called “affiliative” behaviors, or social interactions such as grooming, touching, or hugging, which are meant to cement social bonds.
Dr. Richard: In other studies looking at fMRI related to affiliative behaviors, people were either receiving attention from a loved one, thinking about a loved one, or doing something about positive social behaviors and interactions they have with other people. And there’s a lot of overlap in the brain regions that are activated. So an interpretation of our study is that when people watch ASMR videos, their brains respond to those videos, as if someone is actually with them in the same room with them. And that this is someone they believe cares about them.
Trigger 7: Tapping
VIII: The Future of ASMR
Today, ASMR is undoubtedly one of the most popular video genres on YouTube, with celebrities and brands jumping on the trend and enterprising young Gen Z-ers regularly posting their own videos with search-optimized titles in order to boost their followings. While the stigma that ASMR is sexual is still present, it is rapidly dissipating thanks to its slow crossover into mainstream culture. While many of those who have been involved with the community since the beginning have mixed feelings about its explosion of popularity, all are hopeful that the scientific establishment will one day come to take it more seriously.
GentleWhispering: Nowadays, ASMR is really anything. It can be mukbang or slime or sensory toys, fidget games and things like that that didn’t really used to be a part of ASMR.
QueenOfSerene: Now you gotta have some kind of gimmick. “ASMR for people who don’t have tingles.” “Fall asleep in 5 minutes.”
Amalzd: I don’t remember there being a lot of eating videos back in the day, but now that’s a big huge genre of ASMR, just straight eating. You can just watch an hour long video of someone flicking their tongue on a mic.
EphemeralRift: People started to do videos called “satisfying” videos. They would put the keywords like “satisfying” and you would see like, people playing with slime or stuff like that. You know, fine, whatever, do what you want but I think that certain people start to use certain keywords or keywords or attention-grabbing stuff.
Melinda Lauw, founder of WhisperLodge: After the ASMR Super Bowl ad, that’s when we suddenly started receiving so many inquiries. We’ve worked with the Wing and Moxie Hotel. Just last week we worked with Herbal Essences. We’ve done a product launch for Kahlua.
Jennifer Allen: KFC did an ad. Someone else posted a YouTube video of Colonel Sanders chewing, crunching, and folding pocket squares. It was entertaining, but I felt like maybe we missed something there and maybe ASMR is going a little astray. People are jumping on this bandwagon of mass views. And they’re not fully understanding the point.
QueenOfSerene: That’s what changed the most about it, I think. The fight for attention. It’s oversaturated and it’s not really about helping people anymore.
Amalzd: I think it’s only going to get bigger.
QueenOfSerene: I would like it to be used therapeutically and for there to be some kind of certification. Right now you can be certified to be a hypnotist or yoga teacher. I truly believe that with more studies and more money poured into it, that it will be used to treat some of these things.
Dr. Craig Richard: The next big step is clinical studies. No one’s done any clinical studies. A clinical study would recruit patients who are diagnosed with anxiety and or insomnia, something like that, and expose them to ASMR treatments. So you have to create that, define it and compare those treatments, to other evidence-based treatments for anxiety and for insomnia.
As more research emerges, some counseling experts and sleep specialists have started to incorporate ASMR principles into their own practice.
Curt Ramsey: One of the things I’m always working on with couples is how to have productive conversations where you can empathize with the other person. And so recently, what I’ve started doing is saying, “Okay, I want you guys to sit and have this conversation about whatever topic but I only want you to whisper to one another.” And it’s very interesting what you see happen. I’ve seen couples physically move closer together on the couch in the office. I’ve seen couples where they normally would become defensive and become louder, and then instead when they’re whispering there’s this kind of feeling of, “This is such an intimate feeling situation, and we’re going to work through this. We don’t agree right now, but we’re going to get through this.”
ASMR will likely also become an even bigger money-making opportunity for big brands.
Melinda Lauw: ASMR is part of the whole wellness industry that’s growing rapidly right now. Everyone sees this as a wellness trend they can jump onto.
Fred Levron: I do think there is a massive audience that is very active and receptive so it’s obviously interesting for brands.
GentleWhispering: I see airlines implementing it into their entertainment. I think that’s the next step. I think that it just makes sense. It takes so long to fly and ASMR is for sleep, it’s just a marriage made in heaven.
Gibi ASMR: I’m curious where the next big platform is. ASMR will always have a home on YouTube, I’m just not sure where YouTube is going. ASMR has done well on Spotify. I think it’ll make its way through all the big platforms.
Jennifer Allen: One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is people of being comfortable and taking it for granted that [ASMR is] okay, and that’s so awesome. That was one of the big goals for the community from my perspective. So I’m glad to see that people are confident talking about it, and it’s not something that people are ashamed over, it’s not something that people assume is made up.
WhispersRed: It took about 20 or 30 years for something like yoga to be normal. When I was little, old women would say things like, “Oh, she’s off to bloody yoga.” It was belittled, some New Age hippie thing. Now it’s completely normal and people do it for fitness. I think we have a long way to go for ASMR to be recognized in that sense.
QueenOfSerene: It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes of the internet. Everyone else is saying it’s weird, and then one day you realize, it’s not weird.