By Kateryna Horina
Whispers, eating sounds, chalk dragging down a black board, nails scratching fabric and leather – for many any of these are contenders for top five irritating sounds.
But for others, it’s a form of auditory salvation from the constant drumming of mental health issues reverberating in their minds.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 10-20 per cent of Canadian youth are dealing with anxiety, stress and depression.
Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is a relaxing sensation also known as “brain massage” or “brain orgasms”, that can be triggered by sounds like whispers or crackles.
From self-help to celebrity trends, to effective marketing strategies ASMR videos often feature people who are whispering into microphones and showing their hands or other body parts to create “tingles”.
“We call them tingles. It’s hard to explain,” says Loralee Deeprose, who creates ASMR videos for her 16,000 followers. “It’s a sensation that starts usually at the crown of the head, and because it’s related to the nervous system, it’s a brain thing, and it tends to travel down the spinal column and sometimes to the arms and it’s a lovely, floaty feeling.”
ASMR videos are basically grouped into two different categories: role-play videos, also known as personal attention videos, and visuals, that takes its start from Bob Ross’s painting show on TV.
Bob Ross is known world-wide as an American painter and art instructor who hosted “The Joy of Painting” that aired for a decade starting in the early ’80s.
“That’s when most people were like, “Oh my God! There’s something on television that I can access that gives me those ASMR triggers,” says Deeprose.
Deeprose, an ASMRtist and the owner of the WiseWomanWhispers YouTube channel, says she started doing ASMR videos in 2014. She says she discovered ASMR videos when her younger niece advised her to watch them because she was suffering from anxiety and panic disorders.
The YouTube ASMRtist known as Wronski Whispers, like Deeprose, started her own channel with the intention of helping people.
“For me, producing these videos was always the way to provide some stress relief for other people who deal with anxiety and mental health issues,” she says.
The user behind this channel prefers not to use her real name on YouTube because she feels ASMR carries a stigma because most people misunderstand it.
Wronski says she is also dealing with her own anxiety issues by watching ASMR videos. She began creating her own videos around six to seven years ago.
According to ASMR University, an online ASMR Resource and News Center, the ASMR community started in 2007 when a forum thread titled “Weird sensation feels good” was started by user okaywhatever at steadyhealth.com. Later in 2009 the first ASMR YouTube channel, called WhisperingLife, was created.
ASMR University founder and author Dr. Craig Richard also mentioned Bob Ross’ show as his first ASMR experience.
“I remember being a kid and coming home from school, turning on his TV show, putting a pillow on a floor and just halfway through he would just melt my brain and I’d fall asleep,” Richard says.
Not only did he create the ASMR University, but he is also the host of the ASMR podcast, the author of the book Brain Tingles and he has conducted several studies with his team on this topic. His most recent study showed what areas of the brain are activated during the ASMR experience.
“In the most recent research study that was published by myself and others we showed that the areas of the brain that are activated during ASMR are the same areas that are activated during things like positive interpersonal moments, that sometimes in the animal kingdom called grooming behaviours, or interpersonal, or affiliated behaviors. All of them are positive interactions between individuals,” Richard says. “So there’s still a lot to be understood what is happening during ASMR and why, but I think all of that is a good starting point.”
At this moment he, along with Karissa Burnett and Jennifer Allen, are working on another research study. The ASMR Research Project is focused on the reasons why some people experience ASMR and some don’t.
“That’s definitely a mystery that no one’s uncovered yet,” he says.
According to Richard, the research surveyed more than 26,000 respondents from more than 110 countries.
“That kind of response tells us that ASMR is globally happening, which you can kind of tell just by looking at the YouTube videos. And that helps confirm that it’s probably biological than cultural,” Richard says.
This survey also helped to characterize ASMR and understand how it helps people, and what exactly they feel physically and physiologically.
Most importantly, the survey has questions for the people who don’t experience ASMR, which will help shed some light on why these sensations aren’t happening for them.
“There’s very few people taken our survey who don’t experience ASMR, because there’s very few people in the world . . . who don’t experience ASMR,” he says.
The survey can be done online at the ASMR University website and the results will be published next year.
But for those who do enjoy the effects of ASMR, they might notice that there is a lot of soft-spoken dialogue and whispering.
Xingyu Li, a researcher and the author of the study, “Whispering: The Murmur of Power in a Lo-Fi World” writes that the whisper creates the feeling of closeness and intimacy without the need for physical presence.
“I think it’s tapping into something we were born with,” Richard says. “I think from the moment we’re born we have this hardwiring at which it helps us figure out who cares for us.”
He says that basically what the ASMRtists do in their videos are the same things parents do to soothe children.
“It’s how we use a soft voice, a low volume, maybe whispering. It’s a caring look, it’s a caring tone. It’s careful hand movements, it’s also light touch,” he says. “Everything that a parent does with a child that needs to be soothed is telling that infant through these stimuli that I care for you, and you’re safe.”
Richard says it’s still unknown which exact neurotransmitters are causing the psychological relaxation, but oxytocin is a likely culprit.
“Oxytocin has been shown to be released between individuals who care for each other. Whether it’s a parent and the infant, or the best friends, or partners,” he says.
Deeprose says that it hasn’t been verified, but she feels that a lot of people that seek out ASMR tend to be on the introverted side.
“It’s something that makes them feel connected because it’s all about personal attention. It’s not just about the trigger sounds, it’s sort of developed to a community,” Deeprose says.
According to the first study done on ASMR, that was published in Social Neuroscience journal in 2016, 50 per cent of participants said their mood improved even in sessions with no tingling sensations, and only 30 per cent said that achieving this sensation was vital to mood improvement.
And while people can get this sensation just by watching videos, Richard is looking at newer alternatives. His brand-new book Brain Tingles, that was published earlier this fall, is basically about the new way to experience ASMR — person to person.
“Right now, if you want to experience ASMR intentionally, you’d go to YouTube and you’d watch an ASMR video. But what people are really not thinking of yet, it’s getting together with friends and having ASMR sessions, when you’re purposely giving each other ASMR triggers,” he says.
The book describes the techniques that can be used by partners, parents, friends and coworkers — for anyone who needs to relax.
“At some point we’re stressed and we need help destressing. At some point we have trouble falling asleep, and we need help falling asleep. Instead of just giving them a hug or doing yoga with them, you can have an ASMR session,” says Richard.
In this growing community there are still a lot of people who don’t experience ASMR and know nothing about it, and then they somehow end up watching those videos.
“If you don’t know much about ASMR I think tuning in and watching somebody eating with very loudly eating noises, it seems obviously strange at first,” Wronski says.
She says that she used to get a lot of negative feedback when she first started doing eating videos.
“Obviously, there are some people who are negatively triggered by eating noises, and I would get tons of either just negative comments or blatently abusive, harassing comments on my channel,” Wronski says. “Whereas now I transitioned into doing more nature themed videos, the bulk of comments that I get are positive, but I do tend to get less people viewing my videos than when I was producing eating videos.”
Deeprose says that she would get a lot of negative comments as well.
“When I first started off I used to get a lot of comments like that from the general public in the comment section of my video saying ‘What are you doing?’ ‘That’s stupid!’, ‘Why are you whispering?’, ‘That’s creepy!’
“Because there’s been a lot more exposure I get less and less comments like that,” she says.
But then there is a very small side of the ASMR community that attributes sexual undertones in the videos.
Wronski says that she can understand that from an outsider’s perspective.
“It seems to be more of a fetish thing and it’s not a legitimate treatment for anxiety or depression and that sort of thing.” she says.
Richard compares this misunderstanding with the sexualization in advertisements. He says it works the same, but for some reason people interpret it differently.
“But what’s clear for anyone that looks at the ad and becomes sexually aroused, it’s that attractive person, leaning on the car or sitting on the car on the hood, that can cause a sexual arousal, not the car,” Richard says. “So you can have ASMR videos that cause sexual arousal, but that doesn’t mean ASMR causes sexual arousal.”
“One thing ASMR is not,” Deeprose says “it’s not sexual.”
“It’s not about sexualization, it’s not about sex. It’s about nurturing, it’s about connection… Again, that side effect of ASMR which is very calming,” she says.
It’s evident that ASMR can be used in many different ways, including business opportunities. Today many ASMRtists can rely on their channels to make a living. According to Business Insider, the top YouTube ASMR channel GentleWhispering is estimated to make at least $130,000 per year. Many users monetize their channels with ad support.
Media outlets, like W Magazine, are inviting celebrities to create ASMR videos. Earlier this fall, W Magazine created 22 ASMR videos, with each one featuring a different celebrity. The most viewed is rapper Cardi B’s video where, she is using different ASMR triggers like tapping or scratching ,she is speaking about how she uses ASMR to fall asleep. W Magazine has also featured actresses such as Aubrey Plaza, Cara Delevingne and Eva Longoria.
FuseTV has also created their own celebrity ASMR videos largely featuring rappers Wiz Khalifa, J.I.D. and T-Pain. They are mostly speaking videos with celebrities talking about their art.
At the same time, businesses like IKEA are beginning to jump in on the trend as well. In 2017 IKEA USA produced an advertising series called “Oddly IKEA”, including six short ASMR-style videos and one that was 25 minutes long.
Richard says there are two reasons for ASMR becoming so popular in business.
“I think that’s one reason that it’s trendy,” he says.
“But the more beneficial side, that I’d like to think of it from, is that they are realizing also that people don’t want loud, shouty, obnoxious commercials all the time. You don’t want to turn on a commercial and have someone yelling at you to buy a product. Just calm down, be relaxed, whisper it to me! You know, just show me the product, slowly, have trust in your product, and just make a nice, calm, relaxing commercial that will allow me more so to appreciate the product rather to shoving the product in my face.”
Richard says he hopes that ASMR is going to be incorporated among clinicians and counsellors as well.
“It’s clearly helping people. And when something helps people so effectively, that they spread the word about it… It’s effective for conditions that affect almost all of us, if not all of us.”
Check out if ASMR works for you by watching the video we created: