A tuft of skunk-like hair, black with white streaks, appears on screen. It sits in frame for a second, atop a high-frequency recorder, until a pair of delicate hands stroke it, mimicking a scalp massage. The owner of the hands, a young woman whose face is out of the frame, narrates her mimicked massage in a breathy voice. The video, “Gentle Touch, Gentle Blow, Gentle Whisper — ASMR Whisper,” lasts 18 minutes. “Wow, that was so tingly!” says one user comment. Most of the 1,400 others say more or less the same thing.
Welcome to the weird world of ASMR.
Short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR is a tingling feeling that typically originates at the back of your head, travels down your spine and, in some cases, spreads to your shoulders. The sensation only got an official name in 2010, thanks to the emergence of online communities comprised of like-sensed people trying to describe and define the enjoyable shiver that sporadically crept over their upper bodies.
Broadly speaking, the primary perk of ASMR is pleasurable relaxation, but people tune into videos depicting such calming events as fake neurological exams and gentle hair-stroking for other, more specific reasons, including to relieve stress and chronic pain, manage depression and, perhaps most often, fall asleep.
The most common causes, or “triggers,” for ASMR are soft, repetitive noises, light touch and situations that confer individual attention, such as getting a haircut or receiving an eye exam. But triggers need not occur naturally or unexpectedly. Accordingly, ASMR-tists (as they call themselves) have created, and posted online, a staggering number of videos — thousands, at least — depicting simulated triggers.
You’ve got your roleplay videos, in which someone (often a young woman) stares into the camera and, in a voice just-above-a-whisper, proceeds to administer a fake medical exam to you, the anonymous viewer. Then there are ASMR-tists who narrate mundane non-activities, such as tapping nails against a glass bottle, removing household items from plastic packaging or methodically brushing hair.
The first formal scientific study of ASMR, published last March in the journal Peer J, supports the popularity of ASMR as a sleep aid. For the study, two UK psychologists from Swansea University recruited 244 ASMR-ers (men, women and gender non-binary individuals) through online communities and analyzed both the characteristics of the participants and their ASMR experiences. Most of the tingle-happy participants said they watched ASMR videos before bed. Eighty-two percent of them used ASMR as a sleep aid.
Nick Davis, co-author of the single ASMR study, said he's not sure whether ASMR induces drowsiness because of some specific (and not-yet-identified) quality of the sensation, or because the experience generally boosts moods and facilitates relaxation, and it's easier to nod off when you feel content and calm.
In case you want to go down the rabbit hole, here are some popular videos designed to lull you to sleep. They may be as soothing as a cup of Sleepy Time, or just give you a nice tingling sensation if you’re listening through hi-def headphones. If you don't get the shivers from one video, try one that features different triggers. As Davis explained, some people only experienced ASMR in response to one type of stimuli or experience, be it whispering, tapping or mouth sounds. But, if a trigger works, he said, it tends to work consistently. If you try an array of triggers, however, and nothing turns you into a "tinglehead," then you may not be susceptible to ASMR.
It's worth noting,though, that screens tend not to make the best sleep aids, given the impact of blue light on our sleep-and-wake cycles. Still, millions swear by the somnolent effects of ASMR.
In any case, brace yourself for some weirdness.
And, as not to leave out the unwitting father of ASMR, Bob Ross, revisit this classic clip from the PBS painting show that may have lulled you to sleep as a child.
This post has been updated with quotes.