A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.
Although I haven't experienced it since I was a teenager - I must have somehow outgrown it - I am familiar with the sensation of ASMR. I remember it not so much for the initial "tingles" but rather the calm, pleasurable "trance" triggered by observing certain otherwise-mundane activities: mom diligently preparing dinner, my friends quietly talking to themselves while constructing something with Lego bricks or Tinkertoy, the schoolmate next to me cutting construction paper during art class, the Bob Ross painting show on PBS. I didn't have a name for the sensation and I never really spoke about it, because I wasn't sure that other people experienced it as well. I occasionally watch some of the videos Fairyington describes, because even if they no longer produce this enjoyable trance-like sensation for me, I still find them relaxing and of use as sleep aids.Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.
This is because different triggers work on different people. What produces effects for one person might be fingernails-on-blackboard annoying for someone else.The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour.For those not wired for A.S.M.R. — and even for those who, like me, apparently are — the videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.)
Jordan Pearson delves delves further into the subculture of people who create and watch ASMR roleplay videos:
ASMR as an internet phenomenon took off in 2010, when a Reddit thread asking if anyone else had ever experienced it went viral, and thousands of people realized they weren’t the only ones who'd noticed the pleasant and foreign feeling.
An internet subculture of roleplay videos meant to evoke the sensation has since taken off. Tingle-seekers—lots of them—watch videos delivering agreed-upon triggers like soft whispers in order to feel what devotees vaguely describe as "brain orgasms" or pleasant tingles, though there really isn’t any word in the English language to accurately describe the strange sensation.
Many people have started making these videos themselves—gaining hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers along the way—and often with a twist: elaborate roleplaying with a weirdly maternal bent.
“The most popular roleplay requests are the ones that involve a lot of what I call ‘personal attention.’ An example of that would be, if you go to the eye doctor, for instance, they’re going to be very close to you,” Ally Maque, an ASMR YouTube personality with over one hundred thousand subscribers told me.
These "personal attention" roleplay videos are generally created to be intimate and realistic as possible; oftentimes, binaural recording is used to enhance the experience for the viewer. Which begs the question: is there something creepy or fetishistic about watching these kinds of videos? Why are they so popular? And what exactly is ASMR, anyway?
Although not much research has been conducted on the topic, both [researcher Nitin] Ahuja and Maque told me that their favourite speculative explanation is evolutionary. A commonly floated theory, they said, is that the connection between feelings of pleasure and intimate care stems from the practice of apes picking bugs out of each other’s fur. It’s pure conjecture, like much of the discourse surrounding ASMR, but it’s a possible explanation that seems to have gained traction among those invested in the culture.Indeed, ASMR is difficult to describe and even more difficult to research. But it's a real phenomenon, as my own childhood experiences with the sensation as well as the popularity of ASMR videos - roleplay and otherwise - can attest.
Whether or not ASMR is a physiological phenomenon or provable by science at all is somewhat irrelevant; the sheer number of video views and word-of-mouth testaments to their effectiveness speaks volumes without scientific validation. “A lot of its validity comes from the fact that a lot of people’s narratives coincide with each other,” Ahuja told me.
If you're unfamiliar with ASMR and want to see if any of these videos work for you, the best place to start is the Reddit ASMR page, where links to ASMR videos are constantly posted. ASMR Hub and Soothetube are also good places to look.
Of course, as with any internet phenomenon, ASMR videos are ripe for parody. I find this one particularly funny, if not a bit gory at the end: