From niche YouTube videos to groundbreaking research in Sheffield, Grace Braddock explores the growing community of ASMR.
From a young age, I loved soft spoken stories or classroom games where a peer would gently trace words and pictures on your back. They would send me into a complete state of relaxation which was often accompanied by a pleasant tingling sensation that shimmied through my body.
Later in life, in a bid to beat a bout of insomnia, I used YouTube to find relaxing voices and I stumbled across the Whisper Community which, after the term was coined in 2010, would go on to become the ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) phenomenon.
ASMR is the term associated with experiencing tingles throughout the body, commonly triggered by gentle or repetitive movements and/or an array of soft sounds. The tingles often begin in the head and spread to the back of the neck and down the spine, in varying intensities dependent on the trigger and the individual. However, some fans of ASMR don’t experience tingles at all. They instead enjoy the videos for relaxation or a solution to insomnia.
ASMR videos are unique in that they usually talk directly to the viewer and treat the viewer as if they are in a one-on-one situation. Everyday life scenarios, like going to the hairdressers, are often used to recreate situations which individuals find particularly relaxing and ASMR inducing.
ASMR has garnered growing media attention since 2010 and, particularly since 2016, it has received a huge increase in attention on YouTube. It’s even supported by the more mainstream media and since July 2016 W Magazine have ran an ASMR series on their YouTube channel, where they get well-known faces to have a go at triggering ASMR.
Big YouTube channels, such as FBE who have over 16 million subscribers, have produced reaction videos to popular ASMR videos which has undeniably helped the community to grow.
Notably, in July 2017 GentleWhispering, known in the community as a leading ASMRtist, became the first ASMR channel to reach the 1 million subscriber milestone.
ASMR is the term associated with experiencing tingles throughout the body, commonly triggered by gentle or repetitive movements and/or an array of soft sounds.
Ikea took it to new extremes recently by releasing an online ASMR advert, where different items were advertised using ASMR techniques like soft speaking and the scratching and tapping of surfaces such as bed sheets, desks and carpet.
Of course, with ASMR gaining significant attention, not all of it is going to be positive. The portrayal of such high levels of personal attention during everyday scenarios can result in the videos being misinterpreted as having sexual connotations and the media’s exploration of ASMR has frequently played on this interpretation.
The Guardian are one of many news publications to perpetuate the sexualisation of ASMR, with a 2016 headline dubbing the phenomenon as “videos that give YouTube viewers head orgasms.”
The media’s emphasis on orgasm comes from a combination of a lack of understanding of the term and their aim to shock and attract the reader, but for individuals who have never heard of ASMR or watched a video, this representation can be quite misleading and off-putting.
However, ASMR has begun to be explored more thoroughly in the media. A one-off 2015 BBC Radio 4 programme titled Brain Tingles hosted by comedian Isy Suttie explored not only her favourite ASMR YouTube channels but research in the field.
From a small community on YouTube to mainstream media attention and pioneering university research, there is hope that this increasing awareness of ASMR will allow viewers to be more open about their experiences.
Words by Grace Braddock
Dr Emma Blakey is one of four researchers researching ASMR at the University of Sheffield, one of the few institutions studying the subject.
What kind of experiments or research did you do surrounding ASMR?
We ran two studies. The first was a large online study where we wanted to understand what the triggers of ASMR were and whether watching ASMR videos affected a person’s life in terms of feeling more positive or negative, more relaxed or more stressed and whether this would differ for people who said they experienced ASMR vs people who did not.
The second study brought people into the lab to measure physiological responses to ASMR videos compared to control videos. Participants were either ASMR experiencers or did not experience ASMR, allowing us to compare responses like heart rate and skin conductance to different videos and look at whether this differed for ASMR experiencers.
Was there much research in the field of ASMR prior to your study, as from my research it seems like there are relatively few individuals/institutions researching the area?
There was (and still is) very little research on this topic. Because it is so idiosyncratic, ASMR is hard to study but there has been a lot of research on other idiosyncratic phenomena, such as synaesthesia.
One study came out when we began researching this. The paper, by Nick Davis and Emma Barrett, was a descriptive study focusing on ASMR experiencers and gave us some valuable early indication of the kinds of triggers people who have experience ASMR have.
Since then, we are aware of a few other labs in North America who have begun to look at this. But we are a very long way off understanding the phenomenon and we hope our research results will really start to help us to understand it.
What interested you and the psychologists at the University in getting involved in a relatively new phenomenon?
We were all PhD students at the time. We had been talking about running a study on it for a while, as a couple of us experienced it, found out it had a name and that not everyone experienced it! We were surprised at how little research had been done which motivated us to do some research alongside our PhDs.
Do you see ASMR being a big area of research and interest in the future?
I really hope so. Many more people are now becoming aware of it as a phenomenon because of the media and YouTube channels dedicated to ASMR videos. There is huge potential for studies to offer insight into this given it’s such an under explored area of research.
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