What Is ASMR? Watch the The New Yorker’s Introduction to the Whispering & Crinkling Sounds That Help Calm Anxiety and Induce Euphoria

ASMR… is it a med­ical con­di­tion? A sex­u­al fetish? A desire for peace and qui­et cou­pled with an inabil­i­ty to turn off YouTube? Maybe all or none of the above?

Maybe you caught Act One of This Amer­i­can Life’s “Tribes” episode, in which nov­el­ist Andrea Seigel describes her pas­sion­ate need for whis­per­ing, and finds a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who need the same. She dis­cov­ered the “tin­gle” ear­ly in life, when a friend came over to inspect her shell col­lec­tion, describ­ing each item in a gen­tle whis­per and pro­vok­ing in Seigel an “autonomous sen­so­ry merid­i­an response,” a euphor­ic reac­tion thou­sands crave as though it were a drug. They get their fix, as we learn in the New York­er video above, from videos in which male and female “ASMR artists” gen­tly han­dle, manip­u­late, and describe objects in low mur­murs.

Sen­su­al sibi­lance, the sounds of a brush through hair, scis­sors clip­ping, plas­tic qui­et­ly crin­kling, tap­ping, spray­ing… all pro­duc­ing the same effect as Bob Ross’s hap­py lit­tle clouds and trees, a pio­neer­ing source of ASMR, though it had not yet been iden­ti­fied as such.

Many of Ross’s view­ers were not, in fact, aspir­ing artists, but peo­ple who respond­ed to his calm­ing demeanor and the swish­ing sounds of his brush on the can­vas. (Watch all episodes of his show here.) ASMR artist Maria of the YouTube chan­nel “Gen­tle Whis­per­ing” is not only a pur­vey­or of ASMR sounds, she’s also a client who her­self shiv­ers at fin­ger­tips on paper and breathy whis­pers. See one of her videos below (and many more here).

“No one’s been able to unrav­el the bio­chem­istry or the exact phys­i­o­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence that peo­ple are hav­ing,” says Shenan­doah University’s Craig Richard, an ASMR enthu­si­ast. Oxytocin—the “love hormone”—seems to be involved, which may explain why many ASMR videos have a slight­ly sexy feel to them. Sen­sa­tion, touch, and close­ness define the genre (often host­ed by young, con­ven­tion­al­ly attrac­tive women). ASMR videos may adhere to some spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al con­struc­tions, but the phe­nom­e­non seems real enough. And it has a psy­cho­log­i­cal neme­sis, miso­pho­nia, “an extreme dis­like of cer­tain sounds,” such as just those that set ASMR folks a‑tingling.

“How can a sound be so relax­ing for group A,” asks Richard, “and real­ly make group B angry?” Maybe there is a genet­ic com­po­nent, he spec­u­lates. And maybe the pop­u­lar­i­ty of ASMR videos shows a soft­er, G‑rated side of how lone­ly peo­ple meet a need online. ASMR artists “tend to be peo­ple with real­ly kind and car­ing dis­po­si­tions,” says Richard. “You’re brought into this world and this moment with you and anoth­er per­son. And this per­son just seems to real­ly care about you.” Role-play­ing plays a big role in ASMR videos, which can make them seem even more like adult movies.

But it’s not at all about sex, but about inti­ma­cy, calm, and con­nec­tion, which many peo­ple under­stand­ably hunger for in a noisy, alien­at­ing world. As Richard points out, many say that ASMR videos help with anx­i­ety and insom­nia. Stressed-out stu­dents, sin­gle moth­ers, vet­er­ans with PTSD—all have report­ed find­ing peace through ASMR. “Our soci­ety has become quick­er in every pos­si­ble way,” says Maria. “Every­thing is pushed to the top, to the lim­it. ASMR slows down your per­cep­tion of every­thing.” It’s a med­i­ta­tive art, she sug­gests, and an anti­dote to the brain-scram­bling dis­ori­en­ta­tion of con­tem­po­rary life.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Paint­ing Free Online: 403 Episodes Span­ning 31 Sea­sons

10 Hours of Ambi­ent Arc­tic Sounds Will Help You Relax, Med­i­tate, Study & Sleep

Hear “Weight­less,” the Most Relax­ing Song Ever Made, Accord­ing to Researchers (You’ll Need It Today)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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