We open with a close-up of a young woman’s face, shot from below. She gazes downward into the camera, her light brown hair hanging so low as to almost touch the lens. Her eyes are wide with what seems a kind of maternal solicitousness. When she speaks, she does so very quietly and softly, with a mild European accent that is difficult to place. “Hey, sweetie,” she says. “Do you feel a little bit better?” She touches the lens—the viewer’s face, your face—with a gentle finger. “Yeah, you’re having a fever, hun. I just have a little bit of a wet towel. I’ll just put it on your cheeks a little bit, and your forehead, okay? Yeah? OK, sweetie?” She turns away from you for a moment, and when she turns back, she has a blue facecloth in her hand; with this she sets about gently dabbing and wiping your poor, fevered little brow. It is no fun being sick, she tells you. But she wants you to know that you, her sweetheart, are going to be okay. For a further 13 minutes or so, these moistly whispered reassurances continue, until finally the screen goes black, and the whispering fades to silence.
The video I have just described is called “~♥~ Let me take care of you ~♥~,” and it has well over 50,000 views on YouTube. It is what is known as an ASMR role-play. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which refers to a particular combination of pleasurable physical and psychological affects experienced by a surprisingly large number of people when they hear things like soft whispering, quiet tapping, and gentle crinkling noises. If you search for “ASMR” on YouTube, you will find countless videos like this one. Videos of people, mainly attractive young women, speaking directly to the camera, very softly and very, very slowly, often while pretending to do quite mundane things—giving scalp massages, performing eye examinations, conducting one-on-one napkin folding tutorials. Quite a lot of these are unbelievably long. There is, for instance, a video of a woman pretending to be your dermatologist that goes on for almost half an hour. There’s a video of another woman brushing her hair for an hour and 17 minutes, and there’s a haircut role-play with the near-Tarkovskian running time of 59’58’’ (longer than any actual haircut I’ve ever had). This last one, which is about as tedious a spectacle as you could ever hope to encounter online or off, has had close to a million views.
I’m not one of the lucky people who experience ASMR, so I can only relate indirectly what it’s supposed to feel like. Those who do experience it usually describe it as a pleasant tingling sensation that begins in the scalp and often travels down through to the extremities. It is a sensual phenomenon, but apparently in no way erotic; its effect is one of quietly blissful relaxation rather than any kind of obscure arousal. In fact, lots of people use ASMR videos or sound recordings to help them overcome insomnia, which is why so many of them are so long. The whole point of these things is that they’re profoundly uneventful. In this sense, it’s almost like a form of transcendental meditation; if anything interesting were to actually happen, the whole enterprise would immediately be derailed.
Although the sensation itself has presumably been around for as long as people have been listening to other people whisper or make soft noises, the term ASMR is a very recent one. Its origin as a recognized (although thus far scientifically unverified) phenomenon is usually identified as a 2008 thread on the health discussion forum Steadyhealth.com. The thread, entitled “WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD,” was started by a user named “okaywhatever,” who was curious as to whether anyone else had had the titular weird sensation in the presence of specific stimuli. Other forum users quickly jumped in, saying that they too had experienced an unnamed tingling, which tended to be caused by people whispering or talking very calmly and slowly. A couple of commenters specified that it happened more often in the company of elderly people, who tend to speak more gently. Although the phrase “head orgasm” was briefly proposed, commenters agreed that there was no sexual content to the experience. As a guy called “Tingler” memorably put it, “I got it once really good when I was getting knobbed but I think it was the attention that mattered not the sexual stuff.”
Attention, as Tingler indicates, is a crucial dimension of the ASMR experience. One of the things almost all the role-play videos have in common is that they center around a single person who is speaking to, and attending to, one very important presence: yours. (Non-role-play ASMR content—such as the countless videos of disembodied fingers tapping on things, scratching things and crinkling things—are a different, though somehow no less personal, scenario.) One of the form’s more popular subgenres is the travel-agent role-play, in which a person pretending to be a very soft-spoken travel agent takes you through a range of destination and accommodation options. There are a lot of scalp massages, spa treatments, make-up tutorials, wedding-planner consultations; the whole pampering-industrial complex is gently dramatized here in an array of quietly absurd first-person-perspective YouTube experiences. The active ingredient in all of this—the emotional narcotic that these videos seem formulated to deliver—is a kind of tranquil, womblike intimacy. (It’s worth noting here that, before it even gets a chance to kick in, the calming effect of a lot of these videos is brutally undermined by the viewer’s having to first sit through, say, a Zero Dark Thirty trailer, or an ad for some kind of berry-flavored heartburn medication featuring a triumphantly bellowing Larry the Cable Guy. In that sense, YouTube might not be the ideal media environment for this stuff.)
Although I don’t seem to be able to experience ASMR myself, I find that there is something quite affecting, even poignant, in the idea of people whispering sweet nothings into a webcam, or rubbing their hands up and down a bath towel, so that anonymous strangers might find some unaccountable pleasure or solace in witnessing them do so. As odd as it is, there is a deeply human quality to this strange convergence of technology, alienation, and intimacy. The first instinctive reaction to ASMR is one of comic bemusement; but if you watch enough it, or if you think about it long enough, it eventually gives way to a kind of baffled reverence. It’s only weird, in other words, because we humans are weird, and because the reasons for our comforts and pleasures are so often obscure to us.
The young woman in the “Let me take care of you” video is known to her 32,000 YouTube channel subscribers as TheWaterwhispers Ilse, but her real name is Ilse Blansert, and she’s from the Netherlands. It felt a little odd to be introducing myself and making preliminary small talk with a woman who, just hours previously, had been mopping my virtual brow and whispering to me that I was going to be all right. (That our conversation was held over Skype, whose video interface approximates the exact view I’d had of her, increased the weirdness.) I’d watched quite a few of her other videos, too—“Hairdresser,” “Dentist Appointment,” “Relaxing Bridal Magazine Flipping”—so it was, more generally, also a little odd to hear her voice at standard conversational pitch. (“Yes, I can speak normally,” she chuckled.)
Ilse’s rise to prominence in what she calls “the whisper community” has been exceptionally brisk; she only discovered in 2011 that there was such a thing as ASMR, and started her channel and website less than a year ago. Before that, she was always looking for what she now calls “triggers”—aural influences that made her tingle in a certain way that she didn’t quite know how to talk about. “In high school, I failed a few aural exams because of it. The voices on the tape speaking French or whatever were just so relaxing that I would kind of lose all ability to focus.” When she discovered that there was an online community of people who experienced the same sensations, she was elated; very shortly afterward she started making her own videos in order to give back to that community.
The fact that most ASMR whisperers tend to be young women who speak in a very calm and reassuring way inevitably brings to mind idealized notions of infancy. There’s something about the typical ASMR video that seems to address itself to a desire to regain some prelapsarian state of mother-child unity. (When I watched Ilse’s performance in the “Let me take care of you” video, I couldn’t help thinking of the lethally addictive film at the center of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Part of this film, known as “the Entertainment,” involves a “crib’s-eye view” shot of a beautiful young woman staring down and whispering apologies to the viewer for a very long time.) I mention this mother-child theory to Ilse, and she acknowledges that she has thought about the idea; from a personal perspective, though, it isn’t something she says she finds convincing. Her relationship with her mother was extremely cold and difficult, she tells me, and she was never given the kind of soothing reassurance that most children are provided with. “I was never cuddled and hugged, so I can’t relate to that. I don’t have those memories. The memories I do have are of watching Bob Ross on television.” (Ross, it turns out, is basically a patron saint of the whisper community; his show The Joy of Painting seems to have functioned for a lot of people as a kind of gateway drug into ASMR’s larger nexus of compulsions and pleasures. As the British journalist Rhodri Marsden put it in an article on ASMR in the Independent last year: “[Ross] clearly ticks all the ASMR boxes: expertise, precision, reassuring speech patterns and gentle sounds, from which that characteristic ‘tingling’ inevitably follows.”)
I ask her how a beginner, and someone who does not himself experience ASMR, might go about making one of these videos. She suggests I try something in the line of tapping or crinkling, something that uses my hands rather than relying on talking—a polite way, I suspect, of telling me that I don’t have the vocal chops to make it in the whisper racket. I tell her I’ve come across some videos of people just crinkling crisp packets, and sometimes slowly munching their way through them. This, she tells me—reassuringly, gently—sounds like an excellent idea. “The key thing,” she says, “is not to crinkle too fast or too hard.”
In order to get the lay of the land, I watched a few bag-crinkling ASMR videos. I sat through several recordings of people palpating packets of noodles, pretzels, popcorn. These aren’t role-plays, and the spoken word element tends to be less central—often to the point of being completely absent. There’s usually a kind of rough-hewn verité immediacy to these videos; they bypass the imagination and go straight for sensory payoff. (If the ASMR community is looking for a name for this genre, by the way, I’d suggest “Crinklecore.”) Having crinkled a few packets in my time, this was something I thought I could probably make a go of.
The video I ended up making is, I would guess, exceptionally boring even by the standards of ASMR. Basically, I crinkle a crisp bag for three minutes, and then spend a further five or so very slowly and deliberately consuming its contents. When I stopped the recording and played it back, I was surprised at its relatively short running time, which had felt more like 20 minutes. I find it hard to imagine getting into the kind of trancelike state it would surely take to brush your hair or pretend to be a whispering dermatologist for an hour. During the latter portion of the shoot, I’d started to doubt whether it had been such a good idea to actually get into eating—whatever about crinkling, I somehow find it hard to imagine anyone deriving pleasure from the spectacle of me munching on crisps. But while making the video, particularly during the crinkling stage, I definitely felt a kind of low-level meditative detachment and relaxation. There is obviously something about doing things quietly, slowly, and gently that is inherently calming and relaxing. I don’t want to compare my eating a packet of flame-grilled-steak-flavored snacks to, say, a Buddhist monk raking swirling patterns in the pebbles of a Zen garden, or to the formal protocol of a Japanese tea ceremony. But the combination of slow, deliberate physical movement and close attention to a mundane activity is one I probably don’t encounter frequently enough. Who’s to say eating salty potato-based snacks can’t be an occasion for transcendental experience?
If my Crinklecore video above makes you feel only embarrassment on my behalf, then it’s possible that you, like me, will remain stubbornly resistant to ASMR. But if, while watching me meditatively crinkle and munch my way through a packet of crisps, you somehow find yourself slipping into a blissful state, let me just assure you that you’re very welcome. And you’re in luck, because there are hundreds more hours of similar experiences waiting for you, out there in the whispering online ether.