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What is ASMR? - Donna Freed

Blog | By Donna Freed | May 23, 2022


From nail-tapping to honeycomb-chewing: Donna Freed explores the wacky world of ASMR

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a tingling sensation, or paresthesia. It starts on the scalp and cascades down the spine in a pleasant, warming sensation in response to auditory, visual or tactile stimuli.

These stimuli are called ‘triggers’ and are as diverse as whispering, nail-tapping, scratching, page-turning or the close personal attention and intimacy of an eye exam. The sensation, associated with feeling calm and relaxed, is sometimes described as mildly euphoric.

Jennifer Allen, an American IT consultant, coined the term in 2010 in a bid to lend more legitimacy and gravitas to the sexual and gimmicky ‘brain orgasm’ or ‘brain-gasm’ as it had been described on the web.

Allen sometimes experienced this sensation when watching videos of space, and wondered if anyone else felt the same. She put search terms like ‘tingling head and spine’ into search engines to no avail until 2009, when she came across a post titled ‘WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD’.

The post’s author was looking for an explanation for the sensation. While the ensuing discussion did not provide definitive answers, the respondents shared their own experiences as well as videos that had triggered the brain-gasms. Once Allen came up with the name and search-friendly acronym, she started a Facebook group whose members started sharing videos with content specifically created to act as triggers instead of relying on happenstance.

Since then, there has been an explosion of YouTube videos. Content ranges from hair-washing, -cutting and -brushing, vacuuming, drawing and bubble-popping to makeovers, dental or ear-exam role-plays, all with augmented audio.

One of the most prolific creators is Gibi Klein. Her YouTube channel, Gibi ASMR, has 3.91 million subscribers.

Her most-watched video to date, Fastest ASMR|Dentist, Eye, Cranial Nerve, Sleep Clinic, Lice, Ear Exam, Ear Cleaning, Makeup, Spa!, has had over 33 million views. The 18 action-packed minutes consist of a tight shot of Gibi performing the exams or treatments for the viewer. Her voice just above a whisper, she repeats phrases, adding in clicks, pops and other mouth sounds to punctuate the tapping of her various tools against the screen.

Relieving insomnia is one of the purported benefits of ASMR. YouTube pays not only by the number of views but also by the length of view: while you sleep and the videos continue to roll, the revenue pours in.

Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting series endures as a popular ASMR trigger thanks to Ross’s soft voice intoning phrases such as ‘happy little trees’. The effect is increased by his extended eye contact with the viewer, the focus on his deliberate hand movements, loud, repeated brush strokes and the scrape of the palette knife against the canvas.

Whether or not ASMR is a real phenomenon is difficult to prove – and largely beside the point. In the ‘see a need, fill a need’ world of the internet, the act of searching for specific content is enough to stimulate its creation. You want to hear someone chew honeycomb or slurp oysters for your pleasure? You got it!