The rise of ASMR reveals something telling about modern culture

Oce Bohra, Copy Editor

The Internet has been the breeding ground for a variety of strange trends, with perhaps one of the most infamous being ASMR, which has skyrocketed into popular culture. ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is characterized as a tingling sensation in the head, neck, or spine coupled with feelings of euphoria or intense relaxation as a response to visual or auditory stimuli.

An active community of Youtubers — self-proclaimed ASMRtists — has built up over the last few years from a handful of followers and videomakers to an audience of millions, and these videos have soared into the public eye, with huge news corporations like The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and Vice all paying attention. The community has moved beyond its hushed up circle and the sensation has gained some legitimacy, ASMR is still considered to “reside on the outer edge of respectability” on the internet.

What is often missing from narratives about ASMR, or hidden beneath articles like “Dog Eats Popcorn; ASMR Fans Go Wild,” is something that’s far more serious in nature. The videos themselves don’t illustrate it, but a quick glance through the comments or video summary yields some disturbing observations: while there are those who are on the site simply to feel the tingles or ogle at those who are talking, a large chunk of the viewer base consists of those who want therapy for problems like insomnia, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Most ASMRists issue warnings on their page that their videos are not to be substituted for therapy, but masses of followers acknowledge that they don’t abide by the belief. Comments by viewers range from “This youtube video finally got me to sleep last night” to “Watching this helped me out of my anxiety attack” to “I was seriously considering suicide but [ASMRtist]’s videos made me change my mind.”

Why do those in serious psychological distress gravitate towards videos of people whispering to cameras or folding towels for hours on end? What is it about this fringe community that offers solace?

To understand, one must dispel the stereotypical image the general public has of the videos. ASMR has long been stereotyped as a sexual fetish, as many have found the breathy whispers and close up faces of the ASMRtists to be unnervingly intimate and creepy. In reality, most ASMR role-plays circulate around the concept of “a loving touch” or at least that of a trusted adult. While the triggers and stimuli appear random, a study from Swansea University found that most people who experience ASMR had their first experiences with it as a child, through real life interactions with family or friends. In the stimuli they were most affected by: light touches with eyes closed ranked first; sound triggers second, and visual ones third, which the lead researcher Craig Richard says is “an echo of how the senses develop” in newborns (Smithsonian).

One of the first mainstream ASMRtists, Maria, who goes by GentleWhispering on Youtube, echoes the sentiment: “I think [ASMR] has to do with childhood. Whenever your mother would treat you delicately, or your doctor or teacher would talk to you gently … The caring touch is the biggest trigger.”

A parallel can be drawn: just as soft touches or murmuring are used to relieve sleeplessness, restlessness or fear in infants, they can be applied to treat the more extreme versions — insomnia, anxiety, and depression — in teenagers or adults.

While science on the effects of ASMR is rather lacking and inconclusive, a few studies have explored the topic. The first peer reviewed study on the sensation, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state,” affirmed this hypothesis. The psychologists behind it found that among the 475 participants chosen (all whom were frequent ASMR watchers), 98 percent stated they used the medium to help them relax, 82 percent agreed that they used it to help them sleep, and 70 percent used it to deal with stress, while solely 5 percent reportedly using it for sexual stimulation.

The reported effects of ASMR on this population also gives credence to the theory that the media can be potentially used as a therapy tool: it was suggested that those with higher scores for depression had the greatest improvement in mood and over a third of individuals with chronic pain found ASMR to improve their symptoms.

While it can definitively be said that ASMR isn’t a hoax or internet joke, scientists and psychologists have largely steered away from studying it, due to its internet infamy and the fact that “it’s an inherently personal, private experience”, says Emma Barrett, one of the lead researchers for the study.

Yet the fact that it is private experience is largely responsible for ASMR’s rise: people believe it to be the antithesis of today’s fast-paced culture.

MJ Music, a commenter on one of GentleWhispering videos, made the case that “Something strikes me about ASMR videos. They give us what everyday modern life doesn’t. That is time for others. A mass producing society does not allow for one person to devote so much time and care for another. Don’t you think?”

This attack at ‘modern life’ is warranted. The author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” Dr. Jean Twenge, has followed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), administered to young adults every year since the 1930s, to find that symptoms correlated with anxiety and depression have been at a steady rise (The Cut). According to NIH, today, 25 percent of American teens can or will be diagnosed with some form of an anxiety disorder and over 30 percent of adults experience the same at some point in their life, in comparison with the global rate of seven percent.

Twenge blames the idea that “modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life” and “the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up” (The Cut). While social media and other inventions have made us more connected, they are a poor substitute for flesh-and-blood companionship from a mental health perspective. The focus on individual ambition coupled with the disintegration of the traditional family and social model has left each generation increasingly isolated and prone to psychological disorders.

So the fact that people are turning to videos to stave off anxiety attacks or counter severe depression and that recorded people on screens become more helpful (and real) to those watching and listening than the people around them could reflect the idea that our society has become more and more disconnected and unhappy. In their frenzied desire to take as many APs and extracurriculars as possible to get into the best college or rake up hundreds of Instagram followers, people lose the ability and time to form deep, meaningful connections. But as for now, ASMR provides individuals with a much-needed respite from today’s fast-paced modern society.