Sunday, December 14, 2014
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)
It might sound like a bafflingly bizarre way to spend time on the Internet. But for Maria’s viewers, her voice and movements hold a certain magic: They can instill tranquillity, overcome insomnia — and induce a mysterious physical sensation known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, wherein the body is flooded with waves of euphoric tingles.
ASMR is described as a pleasurable tingling that begins in the head and scalp, shimmies down the spine and relaxes the entire body. Maria — she asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons; her videos have sometimes attracted unwanted attention — experiences ASMR, and her YouTube channel, GentleWhispering, melds her personal tingle-triggers with others suggested by her fans. The resulting videos have drawn more than 87 million views, making Maria the premier celebrity of a controversial but increasingly recognized phenomenon.
But she’s not after exposure or money, she says. Videos by other “ASMRtists” once helped her through a period of depression, and now she wants to pay it forward. She has invested in her craft, upgrading to top-notch binaural microphones that carry every exhale into a listener’s ears as if Maria is standing beside them.
“Little taps and crinkles, or the way certain thicker pages create the most amazing sound when they turn — many times we miss that,” Maria says. “There are these beautiful little things that we don’t pay attention to.”
ASMR in Popular Culture
But the phenomenon has nonetheless burst into the mainstream, thanks to mounting media coverage and a few high-profile references: “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon gushed to Conan O’Brien about her “head orgasms,” induced by the methodical touch of airport security pat-downs; novelist Andrea Seigel shared her experience with ASMR on the radio program “This American Life” last year; the “Dr. Oz” show has featured ASMR videos as a way to ease insomnia.
This year, electronic dance music DJ Deadmau5 released a track titled “Terrors in My Head” that samples Maria’s recordings: “Good morning to you,” drones an eerily soothing, computerized version of Maria’s voice, as if waking interstellar travelers from cryogenic sleep.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of commenters continue to inundate blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook and Reddit forums with their ASMR experiences. Scroll through these lists, and the array of triggers is largely consistent: classical music, haircuts, movie trailers, Bob Ross, more Bob Ross, lots of Bob Ross, the painter best known for his popular instructional videos. Forget the bucolic landscapes; these Ross fans are fixated on his calming baritone and the rustle of his brush on the canvas.
ASMR in Scientific Research
There is no solid data about ASMR, no published research studies — not yet. The term “ASMR” is nonclinical, coined in 2010 by a woman named Jennifer Allen who started an ASMR Facebook group and later became part of a team — along with Richard — that collected and analyzed anecdotal information about the sensation. Bryson Lochte, a Dartmouth College undergrad, has used neuroimaging technology to study ASMR for his senior thesis but has not published his results.
Despite its mystery, “a lot is known about the physiological states associated with ASMR — relaxation, euphoria, comfort,” says Craig Richard, a professor and researcher at the Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy in Winchester, Va., and founder of a blog called ASMR University. “It’s the same molecules involved when an infant is comforted by its mother. . . . It’s endorphins, it’s oxytocin, it’s serotonin.”
In a 2012 blog post, Steven Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, compared ASMR to migraine headaches — “We know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history,” he wrote — and theorized that ASMR could even be a type of “pleasurable” seizure.
The uncharted territory isn’t what people experience, Richard says, but how (some people are triggered through their own thoughts and memories; others through external sights, sounds or touch) and why. To help find answers, Allen and Richard’s team launched its first rudimentary ASMR research survey last month. It received more than 4,000 responses within the first 10 days.
“The response is showing how passionate and interested in ASMR people are,” Richard says.
Maria says that she hears from subscribers, including doctors and psychologists, who are excited by the ASMR research. But mostly, she gets thank-you notes — from people with anxiety or sleep disorders, from overwhelmed college students struggling through exam week, from military veterans who tell her that her videos offer a sense of calm that they can’t find elsewhere.