To research this article, I had to sit in a lot of weird places at a lot of weird angles. It was a lot of trouble, but it would've been a lot more trouble for a bunch of strangers to look over my shoulder and see that I was watching a video of a girl chewing a plate of zucchini pasta up against a microphone with, quite frankly, an unwarranted amount of gusto.
That particular video goes on for a staggering 25 minutes, but I can’t make it through the first three. For me, it’s too much. It feels really intrusive and voyeuristic, but judging by the video’s over 410,000 views and the girl’s over 210,000 YouTube subscribers, I doubt she minds the attention.
She’s known to viewers as SolfridASMR. She’s a producer of ASMR, a type of video that’s exploded in popularity in the past couple of years. Videos like hers get thousands, even millions of views per upload and can be found anywhere from Instagram to Twitter to a new Nickelodeon web series. Like most trends, there are people who love it and people who passionately hate it. It’s everywhere, but also still pretty niche. It’s rare that something gets so much impassioned attention but also exists in such a shadowy space. It begs investigation.
When people say ASMR, often they’re referring to a genre of video like Solfrid’s. While watching these videos is an experience in itself, what makes them special is their sounds. The chewing, the munching – it’s all highlighted to trigger a particular brain response, which is the actual definition of ASMR.
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response and is characterized by a “warm and fuzzy” feeling brought on by certain triggers, often sounds or images. Sometimes it’s stuff like in Solfrid’s video, the sounds of chewing or smacking, that triggers the sensation. Other people prefer the sounds of fingernails tapping on a table, a wet sponge getting squished, or just plain whispers. The list goes on and on, leaving something truly for everyone. From the sound of a makeup brush on a microphone, to the sound of a woman role-playing as a medieval plague doctor treating you for the Black Death, there’s no end to how you can get ASMR.
It’s a tingly feeling, often described as a “head orgasm,” typically starting at the top of the head and working its way down the spine. In simplest terms, scientists think it’s the result of several different areas of the brain firing when they wouldn’t normally. Typically when you’re relaxed, the parietal and frontal lobes are active. Those are the areas of the brain responsible for perception and thought, respectively. ASMR-triggered brains, however, have their occipital cortex (responsible for vision), their primary movement cortex (responsible for movement) and their thalamus (responsible for sensory information) engaged, resulting in the tingles and feelings of euphoria.
That’s pretty much where a lot of the science-y information ends. ASMR and its effects, for the most part, are still pretty unresearched. It’s only just seen a rise to mainstream prominence. Though the community it has attracted is vast, it’s still pretty self-contained, confined to the shadows of internet niche culture. Not anymore, though. In 2015 alone, searches for “ASMR” increased by 200% and are still climbing.
When I asked people I know about it, reactions were about as varied as the ASMR videos themselves. “Some of them are just watching someone eat in high definition and why would I ever want that?” one friend said. “It’s just so disturbing.”
“It’s a fetish thing, right?” said another. “Like isn’t it always a hot girl licking a microphone? It just feels really perverted.”
“I like the soap cutting videos, I think those are really satisfying, but nothing else. It’s too weird.”
“That goo fad is insane.”
Initially, I agreed that watching a zoomed in video of a girl munching on a chunk of honeycomb wasn’t a way I wanted to spend 10 minutes of my time. I agreed that a lot of it seemed to be geared more towards fetish or erotica. But there were several people I reached out to with a perspective I hadn’t thought about.
“It was a good thing I found it when I did,” one of my high school friends told me over direct message one night. She said she has moderate to severe ADD, and while she takes medication for it, it can still make it really hard for her to focus on a particular task. “I started listening to ASMR as a joke because it was a meme on the rise,” she said. “It began to help me a lot with focusing. Once I found the right sounds, my productivity increased like crazy ... it was kind of emotional for me, finding a way to focus.”
I talked to another girl who uses it as a way to cope with her anxiety. “I experienced ASMR my whole life and never knew what the tingling in my head meant,” she said. Once ASMR videos found their way into the mainstream, she was shocked to find that she wasn’t the only one who experienced it. “I feel like ASMR is like meditation for people who cannot manage to clear their heads. It offers a feeling of peace that I can’t achieve for myself.”
Personally, I suffer from both anxiety and chronic insomnia. So, armed with a whole new perspective and understanding, I decided I would give it a try once I got home for winter break.
I know it sounds odd, trying a new method of stress relief during a time where you’re not supposed to be under any actual stress, but it’s those times when I find it hard to get any rest. I’ve always been very skeptical of rest and breaks – I have to feel like I’ve earned them, like I’ve accomplished everything I possibly could have for that day. And even when I know I have, even the night after I finished my last final of the semester, it was still hard to quiet the voices in my head asking:
“But what if you missed something?
“What if you turned in the wrong assignment?”
“You didn’t work on your article today, why not when you had all that free time?”
I can’t even take naps during the day because by the time I get to sleep, I’ve been lying there for two hours already. I’ve tried everything – peaceful music, waterfall sounds, guided meditation. None of it stuck.
So I got settled into bed, popped in my earbuds and put on something tame, just a someone reading a bedtime story. Usually when I got the feeling of ASMR, it came like an unexpected guest – it was something I was never totally prepared for and didn’t really know how to respond to. But this time, I tried to relax. Be open to it. The result wasn’t exactly what I would call “nice,” but it did get me pretty sleepy and it took my focus away from those voices in my head.
I entered this project with little more than what I considered a morbid curiosity, thinking I was just going to take a quick field trip into the weird, taboo corner of YouTube. In the end, it felt more like going on a treasure hunt. Sure, I encountered plenty of oddities along the way, but I left feeling like I’d stumbled on a special kind of secret. Something hidden from most of pop culture, even from science. A space for people to connect and help each other cope.