YouTube Is Bursting With Videos Meant to Give You Brain Orgasms
Welcome to the weird — or relaxing — world of ASMR.
The internet is a very strange place. Strange enough for a video of an objectively pretty woman whispering into a microphone while brushing her hair for an hour to be viewed 20 million times.
The phenomenon of ‘tingly’ sensations and euphoria, caused by auditory stimuli like the sounds of whispering, rustling, or crinkling, was dubbed as ‘autonomous sensory meridian response,’ or ASMR, back in 2010 by Jennifer Allen (who is definitely not a scientist). But this dubious trend has exploded on platforms like YouTube, with channels dedicated to triggering ‘brain orgasms’ and celebrities like Cardi B giving an ASMR-triggering interview.
So what exactly is this trend and why are millions of people watching someone iron a shirt?
What is ASMR?
Described as “the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, tapping, and hand movements,” the tingling or ‘brain orgasms’ are often accompanied by feelings of relaxation and calmness. Not everyone reacts to ASMR triggers the same way, or even at all — only some people are able to experience this peculiar sensation. But those who do claim that the response is similar to how someone might feel after getting a massage, says Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia.
ASMR videos feel like the natural apex of a long trend of audio-visual stimulation, building on the ‘Oddly Satisfying’ video genre, which plays into an OCD-adjacent fascination, and the weirdly-watchable slime video genre that arguably peaked in 2017. But the tingle-inducing triggers have always been around us, from the sounds of daily activities like newspaper pages turning, or pencils scribbling on a notepad, to the unintentional examples in film and advertisements. It’s just that the internet affords people now to have a language and community around this phenomenon. The key finding, yet to be embraced by the scientific community but anecdotally confirmed by most who experience the sensation, is that ASMR videos actually help treat stress, anxiety, insomnia, and even PTSD.
So what are ASMR videos, exactly?
A lot of comments on YouTube ask if the videos are meant to be pornographic. That’s a fair question seeing as how the majority of videos feature beautiful women softly whispering things like, “As you relax, I will be caring for you. Nothing to do but listen and relax. I hope that you will feel better, and if you like, I will make you feel more comfortable. We live in both pain and pleasure, and life is some of both. You need never be alone.” This is usually accompanied by a set of long, manicured nails tapping against a surface, or picking up a pair of scissors to make snipping sounds. But the goal of ASMR videos is actually the opposite of sexual stimulation — it’s complete and utter relaxation.
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While common stimuli include whispering, tapping, or scratching surfaces, popular videos also include the sounds of mundane tasks like folding towels, and audio role-playing scenarios, such as flight attendants tending to you in a plane, or getting a haircut at a salon. There’s even a channel dedicated to ASMR cat-star, Sammy, who gets approximately 200,000 views for videos of him grooming himself. In all of these instances, the auditory triggers are heightened, the sounds seem tantalizingly close and it’s this intimacy that seems to be goosebump inducing.
The videos bear similarities to other forms of auditory stimuli as relaxation or meditation tools (like the white noise apps that play the sound of rain so users can fall asleep), except that here, the users often experience the sounds as a form of self-therapy, where the pleasure comes from the feeling of safety and calm — that the person in the video is caring for you. According to viewers, ASMR videos alleviate symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, depression, and chronic pain.
Do they really? Is there any real science behind this?
Since the phenomenon’s emergence into the mainstream is fairly new, ASMR sensitivity and its physiological effects still need to be studied thoroughly in order to come to provable conclusions.
Giulia Poerio, PhD, who headed the world’s first in-depth study of ASMR at The University of Sheffield in June 2018, experiences ASMR herself, and is committed to proving skeptics wrong. In a set of tests co-authored by Poerio and her team, participants were split into people who claimed to experience ASMR and people who did not. They were shown ASMR videos that included a range of triggers: videos with male voices, female voices, and sounds only, as well as non-ASMR videos.
The study found that ASMR responders showed positive responses only to the ASMR videos. They also experienced physiological responses associated with this, such as a significant reduction in heart rate and a significant increase in skin conductance (a phenomenon where the skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity, due to stimuli that causes physiological arousal), compared to those who said they didn’t experience ASMR. The inverse relationship between heart rate and skin conductance matches users’ experiences of both calmness and relaxation, as well as those tingly feelings of arousal when they watch the videos.
“It’s really clear just from looking beyond my community that people are using ASMR videos to help with insomnia, anxiety, depression and all those sorts of things,” Poerio told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Our research shows that ASMR, when people do experience it, has an emotional and psychological benefit that is comparable to other techniques such as mindfulness.”
The study found that the drop in heart rate (3.41 beats per minute lower than the control subjects’) is comparable to observations from clinical trials using music-based stress reduction for patients with cardiovascular diseases. Poerio offers the study as the first step for future research into the causes, effects, and uses of ASMR, and at the very least, presents it as the foundation upon which more proof for the existence of this seemingly weird and inexplicable phenomenon can be added.
Dr. Carl W. Bazil, a sleep disorders specialist at Columbia University, also believes that ASMR videos may help people who suffer from insomnia. “People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal,” he told The New York Times. “Behavioral treatments — guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditation — are meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. ASMR videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.”
Okay, I need to go lie down.
Don’t forget your special ASMR headphones, which allow you to sleep comfortably while wearing them. If you think this is some weird, niche internet trend, think again. ASMR has hit the mainstream: KFC put out an ASMR ad with George Hamilton eating a piece of extra-crispy chicken! New York Magazine’s The Strategist published a list of gift ideas for the ASMR fanatic in your life! There are more than 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube right now, on live-streaming channels where viewers can access hours of ASMR triggers in real time.
Whether further scientific research can effectively prove the phenomenon of ASMR, it’s clear that millions of people believe they are benefiting from these videos and find that they help with stress, anxiety, and sleep. So while watching someone scrunch up a piece of paper, or cut a grapefruit, for 45 minutes isn’t going to give everyone those tingles, it’s kind of nice to live in a world where something like ASMR videos can bring people together. That they feel comforting and relaxing is, really, enough of a reason for them to exist.
Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle's culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She's also working on a memoir about her family's journey from Iran to India.