The secrets of ASMR

Most nights I struggle to fall asleep. One day I mentioned my common affliction to a friend and they immediately replied with a remedy I hadn’t heard of before: ASMR.

A quick google search decoded the acronym: autonomous sensory meridian response. It is described as an ‘experience’ where you feel a static-like tingling sensation on your skin that usually begins at your scalp and travels down your neck and through the rest of your body. It’s supposed to bring a sense of calm, a cathartic stress reliever that is remarkably soporific.  Or at least that’s what the huge subculture of ASMR devotees say.

Like organised religion too there are many different factions of ASMR.  More specifically there are many different types of ASMR ‘triggers’; acoustic, visual, a combination of both and another that are convinced they can trigger the euphoric tingling by force of will.

I decided to see if ASMR might help me sleep.

The internet, and its digital tome YouTube was full of an underground of ASMRists who practice various forms and film their soft taps and whispers for the enjoyment of thousands.  I plugged in my headphones (for the fully immersive experience), clicked on the first video and stared blankly at my laptop screen as a girl whispered nonsense into a high tech microphone. She leant in to the camera and all I could hear was her breathing way too clearly. Not exactly my idea of a sleeping aid.

I decided to test a different trigger, one that I’d spotted earlier. Not only are there the ‘generic’ ASMR videos (whispering, brushing, lip-smacking etc.) there are also thousands of the role playing variety.

Creepy or intriguing? I’ll go with the latter.

I had a hard time deciding which video to select.  My options were immediate, varied and included ‘Scalp Massage’, ‘Ear Cleaning and Ear Massage’ (nope), ‘Haircut Roleplay’, ‘Big Sister Does your Makeup’ and ‘Hotel Check In’. I settled on the curiously titled ‘ASMR Cranial Nerve Examination’ obviously forgetting that this was supposed to lull me to sleep.

The ASMRtist asks a number of medical questions and pauses for answers I can’t give her. Still she nods and continues whispering until eventually grabbing her stethoscope to measure my heartbeat from thousands of miles away.

I found her whispering annoying and had difficulty suspending my disbelief.I was two videos in and already tired, unfortunately not in the sense of sleep.

I decided to watch one more video, to be sure that they weren’t the secret antidote to my sleeplessness. To increase my chances of success I decided to find a peer-reviewed suggestion. I asked my friend what they recommended and trawled through online forums to get a steer on the most common trigger.

One of the first comments I notice on one ASMR forum is ‘‘I $%#@ing LOVE haircuts’, clearly ent4rent was triggered by roleplay ASMR. Hearingincolour (apt user name) ‘rustling paper, and sounds that make the colour green do it for me’. I’m not synaesthetic…unfortunately.

As I read through posts on other forums it was obvious that some commenters were mistaking the illusive ASMR tingles for ‘goosebumps’ that we all get whilst listening/watching/reading something emotive.

Between these comments however a trend started to emerge. One that brought me to the godfather of ASMR – a perm-haired man called Bob Ross.

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 “Bob Ross does it for me every time”

That Bob Ross “Joy of Painting” show is like cocaine for me. Feels like my brain is on fire but in a good way.”

Ross was a television personality during the 80s and 90s who has recently shot to renewed (internet) fame thanks to a number of pop-culture references. He was the host of an instructional painting show called The Joy of Painting. His voice as he describes each bucolic landscape is like honey dripping from a dipper – slow, transfixing and soothing. His videos have reached thousands on YouTube and his series is currently on NZ Netflix for you to enjoy.

Was the third time a charm? Was Bob Ross my ASMR trigger?

Sadly, no.

While I can appreciate how enjoyable it is to watch paint be layered it didn’t give me any mystical tingles in my scalp.

So what is happening to cause the ‘head tingles’? I mentioned earlier that I am not synaesthetic – perhaps that’s my downfall. Synaesthesia is a neurological sensation in which one sensory stimulation causes involuntary sensations in another sense (e.g. Hearingincolour explaining that they can hear the colour green) and some researchers have suggested that this is a link to ASMR tingles. Others have suggested the tingles are a result of anatomical chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin or endorphins being released. Unfortunately any substantial research is lacking so there’s no clear answer as to what causes the tingles.

While I don’t know what the ASMR tingles feel like, there must be truth to the phenomenon. The amount of people all experiencing a similar thing is proof enough for me. With 20,400,000 search results on Google, and 7,790,000 on YouTube, supply is clearly meeting demand.

Of the individuals who have carved out a career posting these videos online, the majority are female. Their videos are predominantly roleplaying scenarios that are motherly and nurturing. Perhaps subconsciously leveraging infantile behaviours to generate a form of digital intimacy? A demand that is not totally surprising with our increasingly digitised lifestyles.

Daily, it seems, there is new research published warning against the dangers of social media and how it is fragmenting society and making us feel lonelier than ever.

With that in mind ASMR is one of those 21st century products that could only exist in our time – where digital intimacy provides neurological benefits made possible by the freedom that online anonymity provides. Could it be that ASMR is not the tonic for sleeplessness, but rather the tonic for loneliness in our increasingly blurred landscape of feeling and digitisation?

At the end of my ASMR sleep remedy quest just one question lingers, how did that girl know how to deliver a Cranial Nerve Examination?

One thing I know for sure. Whispers *I will never be a tinglehead*.


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