“Brain tingles,” “chills” and “shivers” are all words used to describe the effect of ASMR. The strange yet pleasant sensation can wash over you when listening to certain sounds, like someone whispering, scissors snipping or paper crinkling. Many find it so relaxing that they use it to fall asleep. But what is ASMR, and why are people obsessed with it?
ASMR: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or “a sensation that arises from some kind of stimulus and produces a peak or climax.” That’s a fancy-yet-non-scientific way to describe the chills and tingles that start in your brain and can run down your body. The term was coined in 2010, but the phenomenon has been around a lot longer.
Sound, light touch and “unbroken personal attention” are all ASMR triggers. In fact, if you’ve ever played a variation of “Criss Cross Applesauce” as a kid, you were practicing ASMR. Some people report feeling tingles when they hear soft sounds like whispering, whereas others experience it during crisp sounds like tapping or scissors snipping.
Not everyone feels these sensations, but the ones who do report it to be pleasant and relaxing—sometimes, so relaxing that they are able to fall asleep immediately. Studies have shown that ASMR does indeed lower the heart rate, among other scientifically proven physiological results. Many people who report “braingasms” also show signs of synesthesia, a condition where stimulating one sense can trigger other sensory responses.
The best way to figure out whether you’re susceptible to ASMR is to simply visit YouTube and search for ASMR. Hundreds of thousands of videos are made each year to produce those brain tingles—and it’s more popular than ever.
Millions of YouTube views—and a strange dark side
ASMR is practically unavoidable at this point. Search for a guided meditation on YouTube and you’ll inevitably find versions that use ASMR. The most popular videos have tens of millions of views, often featuring young, pretty women who will whisper and make sounds so that you can relax. The phenomenon has even made its way into pop culture, including IKEA ads, Dove commercials and even W Magazine.
The appeal is undeniable, but why? Is it really only for relaxation?
To paraphrase an old chestnut, if something exists, the internet will sexualize it. While only 5% of participants in one study reported that the tingles were sexual in nature, that small percentage certainly doesn’t stop the harassing YouTube comments. According to Bitch magazine, some content creators report that they received unsolicited private photos of men; others note that viewers are quick to make snide comments about appearance, especially “cleavage thumbnails.” Even their nail polish comes under fire.
As you can imagine, female creators, who make up the majority of ASMR YouTube personalities, receive the brunt of the online harassment. Women and girls tend to be sexualized in media and pop culture more than men; add videos that produce physical sensations, featuring attractive women, and it’s a recipe for disaster. You can certainly block or delete comments, but when they pour in by the hundreds—as they often do on popular ASMR accounts—it’s overwhelming. Creators who monetize their videos and open up public social media accounts tend to be the ones who suffer the most.
Is ASMR sexual? It can be.
Some creators purposely make “sensual” ASMR videos, while others consider it akin to a fetish. Wherever you land, it makes sense. For example, whispering and personal attention are two hallmarks of ASMR—but also flirting or sexual contact. If you’re experiencing brain tingles when your partner whispers in your ear, it’s not surprising that some people start to associate that feeling with sex.
Some experts suggest that using ASMR videos for sexual feelings may even be a positive thing: the videos focus on sensation, not bodies or gender identities.
ASMR isn’t going anywhere
Despite the strange sexualization and petty drama that can happen in ASMR communities, the overall impact is clear: people love ASMR. The phenomenon has continued to build over the last decade and shows no signs of slowing down. Since videos tend to lose their efficacy over time, and not every video works for each person, creators are constantly coming up with new content to meet demand.
Will ASMR work for you? There’s only one way to find out: give it a try.