Is Gentle Whispering The Cure For Your Insomnia? Everything You Need To Know About ASMR

Photo: Andrey Pavlov

There is a quiet—oh, so quiet—revolution happening on YouTube that is helping people with stress, depression, and insomnia fall asleep more easily. The videos elicit a tingling sensation that starts in the scalp and flushes away physical tension and anxious thoughts. One New York Times writer described feeling "carbonated bubbles through the back of my head." And no, it's not porn, although some have likened the euphoria of being triggered to "head orgasms." Reddit has defined it as "sounds that feel good." This phenomenon is ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

The first (intentional) ASMR-triggering video was uploaded to YouTube into 2010, and after seven years of tingles ASMR is finally being studied scientifically to understand who gets it, why (because not everyone does) and how we can use it to our benefit. Maria of Gentle Whispering, one of the most followed "ASMRtists," a term used to describe individuals who create videos specifically to trigger ASMR, surpassed 1 million YouTube subscribers this month. ASMR is having a moment.

Why is ASMR trending now?

According to Google Trends, the search volume for "ASMR" and "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response" is at an all-time high. Like many wellness trends, ASMR is pretty weird at first glance—especially for someone who doesn't get triggered by the videos. ASMR listeners are often self-conscious about their habit, but more people are "coming out" about their love and appreciation for ASMR, destigmatizing it for others.

"Many have experienced ASMR all their lives, and so the growth of YouTube coupled with a desire for relaxing content has catalyzed both the development and boom in ASMR content," said Ben Nicholls, the ASMRtist behind ASMR Gamer. The evolving conversation and openness around mental health has to be helping, too.

"The comments and messages I receive on my YouTube channel make it clear to me that for many people, discovering ASMR videos is like finding a magic potion to relieve the stress and tension of daily life, if only for a short while," said RelaxingASMR, one of the few male ASMRtists who has 75,000 subscribers.

Heather Feather, an ASMRtist with 480,000 followers, sees it too. "Other more 'mainstream' YouTubers began to see the massive views that ASMR videos get, and started jumping on the bandwagon—either to praise, criticize, or participate. This brought a lot of new viewers to the fold," she said. "ASMR videos would have zero traction if they didn't actually work for people."

ASMR triggers: Different strokes for different folks.

"ASMR is an interesting phenomenon and not yet very well understood. An important question is why some experience this sensory response while some do not," said neurologist Ilene Ruhoy. She pointed to a recent study that aimed to understand why some people experience ASMR while others do not and found evidence that suggests certain personality traits are associated with the ASMR trigger response. Researchers gathered almost 600 participants, half who experience ASMR trigger response and half who do not and tested both groups for traits in the Big Five Personality Inventory. Openness-to-experience and neuroticism were high among the ASMR group while conscientiousness, extroversion, and agreeableness were not.

It makes sense: You have to be open to exploring a whole new landscape of very intimate video-driven experiences in order to indulge your ASMR senses. "While controversial, we know that many are 'wired' differently, and some believe ASMR is in the realm of the invocation of a euphoric, or calming, sensory response to particular triggers and allows for lowered stress response and perhaps even emotional bonding," said Ruhoy.

But not all ASMR triggers are on YouTube. If you love getting your hair done or played with, back scratches, gentle massage, scalp rubs, or gentle touching in general, you have ASMR too, but your triggers are more physical. Others are triggered visually by simply watching the videos.

ASMR triggers are like Pandora's box: Once you discover the depth of what the ASMRtist community has to offer, sifting through the possibilities of what elicits the most tingles is seemingly endless. Over time, they've evolved to be more specific—ASMRtists will often create videos around a certain trigger, and many interact with their listenership to determine exactly what they want. For those unfamiliar with ASMR, here is a list of common triggers and examples of them:

  • Gentle whispering: The sound of light whispering, lip smacking, and other mouth sounds can trigger big time tingles for some.
  • Soft-spoken: Many people like learning new things through ASMR videos—it creates a boundary in what can feel like a very intimate scenario.
  • Sounds only: Tapping, scratching, brushing, hair brushing, and other soothing sounds are played into the microphone, mimicking the tingles they can trigger in real life.
  • Rambling: Rambling is when someone simply speaks softly into the microphone, often while doing something else like hair brushing.
  • Role plays: As you might imagine, you can find role plays for everything under the sun, but more often than not the role being played also triggers ASMR in person, like haircuts and makeup application.
  • Caring for you: This is a subset of the role-play videos in which the ASMRtist speaks in a way in which he or she pretends to care for the listener, which is often quite triggering for some.
  • Inaudible whispers: You can hear the sound of whispering, but you can't actually hear what they're saying.
  • Repeating: Repeating sounds or repeating specific trigger words can heighten the tingle sensation.
  • Binaural: You've probably heard binaural songs in your headphones, but it's when sounds transition from one ear to the other, creating a more real-life, three-dimensional experience. Another common phrase for this is "ear-to-ear."
  • ASMR versions: YouTube's greatest hits: These are ASMR versions of hauls, makeup applications, that purposefully use gentle speaking or whispering.
  • Accidental ASMR: Like Bob Ross, many videos are uploaded to YouTube and are "accidental ASMR" videos, meaning that they trigger people without the intention of doing so.
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The future of ASMR.

Heather Feather recounts why she started her channel in the first place. "Everyday I get messages from people all over the world, all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds telling me how much ASMR has helped them. Pregnant women who couldn't sleep, soldiers who couldn't close their eyes without nightmares, students trying to find relief from the pressures of school, people who just like to have ASMR vids on as background noise while they game or work, people with anxiety, people just looking to tingle...knowing that you're making some kind of difference to so many is an indescribable feeling. Making ASMR videos is the most rewarding hobby I have ever had, and I never want to stop," she said.

While the spotlight is on YouTube ASMRtists, there is potential to grow into other media. There are a few mobile apps that tap into the healing power of sound; there aren't many that use ASMR specifically as a vehicle for relaxation and sleep. ASMR Player, Silk ASMR, and ASMR 6 are app pioneers. Not surprisingly, many have explored podcasts as a natural extension of their video channels. Nicholls of ASMR Gamer contemplates whether he'd ever turn his ASMR success into a full-time gig. "For a long time I didn't benefit economically, but now I am able to. The wonderful thing is that my passion is as fervent now as it was then; money is a nice return on time invested, but I would still film without the cash," he said. This is perhaps one of the key qualities of the ASMR community that has led to the growing trend: They are tight-knit and warm, ultimately supporting one another in relaxation and well-being.

If you're trying to overcome insomnia, here's what worked for one woman on a quest for rest. Plus, here's why sleep is the most important part of your wellness routine.

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