You've probably never heard of ASMR. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Some describe it as a tingly, mildly euphoric sensation that starts at the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. Some compare it to goosebumps. Others call it a relaxing, melting sensation. It's often triggered by certain sounds, like fingers running over a hairbrush, the snip of scissors cutting hair, or whispering (The Joy of Painting host Bob Ross, with his soothing voice and happy little trees, was an unintentional ASMR master).
Do a quick search on YouTube and you'll find a thriving community of young content creators making ASMR videos. Using binaural microphones and a variety of props, they produce sounds likely to trigger the response. Many who watch these videos generally use them for relaxation or as a sleep aid, the millennial version of a white noise machine. But now, some YouTubers are combining ASMR with another popular genre – the video game Let's Play.
Millions head to YouTube to watch people like PewDiePie and Markiplier play video games. These Let's Plays are generally full of noise, bombast, and big personalities. ASMR Let's Plays, in contrast, are incredibly chill. Many feature slow-paced games like Minecraft, No Man's Sky, or Stardew Valley. Occasionally, you'll see more combat-heavy offerings like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds or World of Warcraft. There is no shouting or high-pitched squealing. Just a gentle whisper and the game.
Ben Nicholls runs a YouTube channel called ASMR Gamer. It's full of Let's Plays, unboxing videos, game reviews, and more. He told Glixel he discovered the ASMR community by chance when it was in its embryonic stages in 2014. He watched videos before school and felt immediately entranced. "I just remember it being so different and so bizarre, yet familiar at the same time," he said.
Finally, he had a name for a feeling he'd experienced before but couldn't quite verbalize, and a group of people who understood it. It was that strong sense of community that led to Ben starting his own YouTube channel. "I wanted to create videos that I didn't think there was enough of in the ASMR space, and so the ASMR game was born from that desire," he said.
"If you’ve never watched an ASMR video before, I totally understand why you might look at one of these and say, 'What the heck is going on here? Why is this guy whispering? Why is this lady touching the camera?'" said Nick (who asked us to withhold his last name). He runs a YouTube channel called The ASMR Nerd. "And I get that, because when I first started watching intentional ASMR videos, I thought they were really weird, too."
Like Ben, Nick began watching ASMR videos both as a sleep aid and as a way to deal with work and school stress. Many of his subscribers come to his channel for the same reasons. "I get messages and comments from people saying, 'Thank you so much. This is such a big help. This is helping me get through my exams or my job stress or helping me with my insomnia or my anxiety,'" he said. "Really heartwarming, heartfelt messages, and that’s the best part of doing this."
On his YouTube channel, Nick often tries to highlight the relaxing aspects of video games people normally don't consider relaxing. Overwatch, for example, is a fast-paced online hero shooter. But, in Nick's hands, it becomes something more akin to a so-called walking simulator like Gone Home or Dear Esther. Using the game's spectator mode in a custom match, he gives his viewers a hushed guided tour of each map.
"I find that there are a lot of really subtle details and cool environmental storytelling that the designers put into these maps that is often overlooked by players because you’re running around at 100 miles an hour just trying to kill people or not get shot," he said.
"You’ve got your reaction videos, and the outgoing personalities of these gamers, and that’s all well and good if that’s what you’re looking for," he added. "But, I’ve found that there’s a subset of viewers who are just looking for something they can put on in the background while they’re working or writing a paper for school, or maybe they just want to be able to relax at the end of the day before they go to bed, and certainly that subset of viewer is not well-served by your typical Let's Plays."
Ben and Nick each have over 60,000 subscribers on their channels, a small but loyal following that's overwhelmingly male and between the ages of 18-34. But, they don't like to talk about what they do outside of YouTube. It can be awkward explaining ASMR to someone who's never heard of it or experienced it. Many people likely dismiss it as a weird millennial sex thing – and for some people, it probably is. "ASMR" was the fifth biggest trending search on PornHub last year. Clearly, there's a market for it. As ASMR continues to gain media attention, however, both Ben and Nick hope the scientific community will start to seriously look into it and its potential benefits.
"I hope the bigger it gets the more interest there is to understand it, because it's still … shrouded in mystery," Ben said. "It’s still quite uncertain what specifically and actually happens."
"I think there’s a lot of room for growth," Nick said, "I think it’s finally … reaching out into the broader public consciousness. I see things now, like jokes about ASMR ,occasionally in TV shows and movies and things like that. My mother was watching some made-for-TV Christmas film … one of the main characters mentioned ASMR, and she’s like, 'It’s that thing you do. That thing. Your videos,' and I was like, 'Yes, mom. It is.' It was very sweet that she was so excited."