Stop Calling Everything ASMR

The term was once about pleasing sounds. Now we use it to describe anything that makes us feel good.

Paint swirls in various colors.
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When I was old enough to answer the phone but too young for anyone to call me, I loved telemarketers. My voice was almost adult then, but not quite, betrayed only by the occasional crack, and when strangers called I would make it deeper still, trying to hold salespeople on the line as long as I could before admitting that I had no authority of my own. For reasons I couldn’t quite articulate, I found their intrusions calming, almost pleasurable. They all spoke the same way, and something about their tone burrowed into my body, leaping and tumbling and tripping across my scalp like a child on a trampoline.

Decades later, I would learn the phenomenon had a name. On the internet they called it ASMR, a subtle form of bodily pleasure, typically activated by certain sounds. Those four letters stand for something, but I prefer not to spell it out. When you do, the whole operation begins to feel that much more like pseudoscientific nonsense. Better to pronounce those syllables slow, with a reverent hush, emphasizing the sibilance of the second. Better to let them pile up on one another like so much nonsense, to let the initialism become a mysterious and tingling thing, a resonant echo of the phenomenon it describes.

As Mark O’Connell explained in a 2013 Slate article, the phenomenon first began to be discussed online in the 2000s. The label “ASMR” would grow popular soon after, finding purchase in a Facebook community started by the cybersecurity professional Jennifer Allen, who also coined the term. In the years since, YouTube has spawned a well-documented tradition of ASMR-inducing videos, typically featuring women whispering directly to the camera, many of them with hundreds of thousands of views, most of them enormously boring, even if they work for you. “The whole point of these things is that they’re profoundly uneventful,” O’Connell wrote. “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.”

Anecdotally, those who claim to experience ASMR most often found their way to the phenomenon as I did, through primarily verbal cues. “Attention,” O’Connell observes, “is a crucial dimension of the ASMR experience.” On the one hand, the speakers—be they coolly professional telemarketers or placid YouTube performers—seem focused on you and you alone. On the other, you give yourself over completely to them. When we think of ASMR in those terms, we might understand it as a kind of disordered cognitive reward for merely listening to others. The resulting pleasure could be described as physicalized empathy, an illusory form of intimacy that inscribes itself on our flesh.

There is, however, money to be made from these videos, which may be why the ASMR label has come to encompass other forms content. Search for “#asmr” on Instagram, for example, and you’ll find it attached to hundreds, maybe thousands, of posts far removed from women whispering into the digital void. One representative 42-second clip that accumulated almost 50,000 views in less than a day shows a pair of human hands stretching translucent slime over a cartoonish polar bear, also made of some viscous substance. It’s hypnotic, yes, but is it ASMR?

Some certainly hold that it is. In Marie Claire, Charlotte Lieberman suggests that the slime trend on social media—and this is absolutely a trend—may indeed induce ASMR states, or at least something adjacent to them. Should we say the same of another Instagram genre, one documented by the Huffington Post in 2016, in which “an anonymous human presses, cuts and otherwise manipulates tan and fuchsia shapes of sand in a perfectly unadorned setting”? What about the videos in which people quietly mix paint, accompanied only by faint swooshing and swooping sounds? What about Gigi Hadid staring at the camera in slow motion? What about footage of women chewing ice? Each new genre of ASMR can seem more ridiculous than the last, particularly if you’ve never felt it—the pinpricks on your skull, the washi paper winding its way down your spine. “I feel like people are faking it,” my friend Josh tells me. “ASMR truther here.”

While academic research on the phenomenon is rare, some of it does seem to support such skepticism. In Smithsonian magazine, Libby Copeland discusses a qualitative study that asked participants to rate different triggers. The researchers found that visual cues ranked well below auditory ones, which would seem to support the premise that being spoken to is a more compelling entry point. It’s possible, then, that largely visual posts simply activate a related but distinct (and possibly lesser) cognitive reward circuit.

Though one can only ever extrapolate from one’s own experiences with ASMR, this angle squares with my own. Watching a looping video of pinkish sand falling into neat slices, can be soothing, but nothing about it sets my body thrumming. Tagging such posts as ASMR may have simply become a kind of internet shorthand, a way of indicating that you might find them pleasing depending on the particular configuration of your neural circuitry. What we see here, then, is something more like memetic drift than an attempt at scientific classification: words and ideas taking on new connotations in the absence of fixed meaning.

This slipperiness may be inherent in the underlying neural processes that beget ASMR in the first place. The same study that ranked sights below sounds suggests that touch may be an even more prominent cue, a notion that should make sense to anyone who has lapsed into a meditative state from the touch of a barber’s brush at the end of a haircut. Copeland also discusses an fMRI study that suggests ASMR-sensitive brains look different. In them, “areas related to a visual network, for instance,” lit up with other regions in ways those of control subjects didn’t. While that study had a dubiously small sample size, the findings may still point to an avenue for further research: the possibility that what we call ASMR may have something to do with synesthesia.

If future research bears that contention out, we may be able to give some of the internet’s outlier ASMR content the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps what we’re experiencing when we slip into an ASMR state is a kind of sensory confusion: We do not so much hear the words of the person talking to us as feel them. (Beguiled as I was by the telemarketers’ tones, I never really understood what they were selling.) Why couldn’t that also be true when we fixate on a model’s languorous gaze? ASMR, in other words, may not be any one thing so much as it is a grand complication of crossed wires, an idiosyncratic mess of misfired signals that engender new felt signifiers within the brain.

But even if that proves true, we have all the more reason to zero in on a clearer definition of ASMR today. The term has always been ad hoc, more a finding aid designed to organize virtual communities than an attempt to provide a definitive diagnosis. From the start, it was a way of listening in to certain sounds and identifying those who knew how to make them. Given how fuzzy the phenomenon is proving itself to be, we might do well to return to that earlier, more restrictive use of the term. The working of our minds will always be our greatest mystery. The language of the internet need not be.