I am in primary school, aged ten, and one girl in the classroom has hiccups. She looks embarrassed as others around her giggle, but I am almost frozen in silence, a strange warm feeling of relaxation fizzing at the back of my head.
I am eating dinner with my family, aged 15, and my younger sister is practising ballet steps around the room. My parents ask her to finish her food but I feel more serene than distracted.
I am commuting, aged 25, descending the escalator at St Paul’s Tube station, and the same old busker is tunelessly whistling by the platform. Others ignore him as they rush past. I am fixed to the spot, savouring the tingles washing over my brain.
I am working from home, aged 31, and my boyfriend is pulling up weeds from the cracks between paving slabs in the garden with a trowel. The neighbours slam their windows shut to the metallic scraping. I breeze through the most focused hours of writing I’ve done in months.
At this point, you will relate entirely, or think I sound odd. Since childhood, I have experienced a sensation called autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. This is a little-understood phenomenon best described as “low-grade euphoria”, characterised by a tingling around the head that moves down the neck and back, coupled with a feeling of utter calm and bliss. (“Too much information!” was a friend’s response when I described it recently, but it is not remotely sexual.)
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Although the main trigger for ASMR is touch – someone fiddling with your hair, perhaps – the media more often associates it with whispering, soft speaking, tapping, fidgeting, repetitive and deliberate movements and sounds, and performing focused or routine tasks. Close but impersonal attention is another common stimulus – one writer in the New Humanist recently described how he would experience ASMR when having his eyes tested as a child.
Everyone is different. For me, it could be a hovering helicopter or a hesitant speaking style. I was the first person to report hiccups as a trigger at the Wellcome Collection’s public engagement event exploring ASMR six years ago. (As a child, I assumed everyone felt the same until a baffled school friend told me hiccups were generally considered irritating.) It is not known how many people experience the sensation, or why. “That’s the million-dollar question,” says Giulia Poerio, an ASMR researcher at the University of Essex’s psychology department. “Eventually we will have to start looking into brain development to try to understand.”
Through her research, Poerio has shown that ASMR is a genuine physiological response. Participants in her 2015-18 study displayed substantially reduced heart rates and increased “skin conductance” (enhanced sweating on the skin). This is a strange combination, like no other feeling. Usually your heart rate rises if you feel excited. “They were simultaneously feeling relaxed and euphoric,” says Poerio, who herself experiences ASMR. “It suggests a really complex emotional profile.”
Although anecdotally people use ASMR to ease insomnia or anxiety, it is a niche research area with fewer than 20 published papers on the subject. A global research network into ASMR set up in February missed out on grants and had to rely on crowdfunding. Though the science of ASMR is in its infancy, the sensation underpins a multi-billion-dollar industry. “ASMR” is the third most searched term worldwide on YouTube, where more than 13 million videos have been published to try to reproduce the sensation. The 25 most popular creators of these videos, known as “ASMRtists”, make £850,000 a year on average. In December 2019 the top ten creators accrued more than 5.7 trillion views across their combined 4,450 videos, with over 24 million subscribers.
Questions about exploitation dog some of the accounts, with children as young as five featuring in clips – yet another under-explored frontier in the Wild West of self-published digital content. A typical video shows an adult whispering or speaking softly, brushing and tapping a microphone, or using objects to make gentle, repetitive sounds. One of the most popular on YouTube, with more than 23 million views, is a 16-minute clip published in 2012 by Russian ASMRtist Maria Viktorovna, flicking the bristles of a hairbrush and tickling the camera with a peacock feather.
The first ASMR video, which featured relaxing whispering sounds, was posted by a YouTuber known as WhisperingLife in 2009. Journalists spotted the digital culture trend, and the first article about it appeared in the Huffington Post in 2012, entitled: “ASMR: Orgasms for Your Brain.”
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Capitalism took notice. Mars released the first ASMR-inspired advertisement in 2015 (lots of packet crinkling and chocolate bar snapping), and Ritz Crackers, Pepsi and KFC created their own the following year. Brands as diverse as McDonald’s, Gucci, Apple and Ikea have used ASMR in adverts and social media. In 2018 Samsung announced it was building a phone case shaped like human ears for recording ASMR videos on smartphones. US rapper Cardi B created her own ASMR video the same year, and the breathy vocals of the teenage songwriter Billie Eilish have made her an “ASMR icon”.
It is not just a quirk of the zeitgeist. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway gave a convincing description in 1925, when Septimus hears the nursemaid spelling out an aeroplane’s sky-writing “close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ… which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke”. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath seemed to know the feeling too, when Constantin runs his fingers through her narrator’s hair: “A little electric shock flared through me and I sat quite still. Ever since I was small I loved feeling somebody comb my hair. It made me go all sleepy and peaceful.”
My own ASMR is more of the old- fashioned, spontaneous kind – the videos do nothing for me and I find them off-putting. “People forget that it is more than an online trend,” says Poerio, who first felt it when having her feet measured for school shoes. “But ASMR as an emotional experience existed before the internet.”
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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust