Without fail, I’m never able to keep my eyes open at the hair salon. It happens as soon as I tip my head back into the sink and my stylist washes my hair. The ceramic tub muffles sounds of blowdryers and chatty patrons. Warm water slides over my split ends, sending tingles down my neck—and the things I can hear, like the gentle clicking open and shut of the shampoo bottle, give me chills. It’s usually mid-morning, so I shouldn’t be tired, but something about the atmosphere of the salon consistently makes me feel peaceful, relaxed—if not a little drowsy. I didn’t know why this happened until I found out more about ASMR.
The relaxing, tingling sensation I experienced in my head, neck and spine may be attributed to an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)—or “low-grade euphoria”—and it’s not limited to trips to the salon. It can be triggered in response to various repeated, methodical and gentle stimuli at a low and steady volumes, such as whispering, crisp clicks, like the cracking of eggshells or crinkling of paper, or just being in close proximity to sound and touch. Think about if you tend to quickly fall asleep on a plane during take-off or if the sound of an overhead fan lulls you. Perhaps, instead you find those Instagram videos of people playing with slime or slicing mounds of perfectly formed sand particularly soothing. Chances are, you’ve been experiencing ASMR too.
But what is it exactly? And how does it work? The scientific jury is still out. The concept was first mentioned in an online forum in 2007, the term coined by ASMR proponent and founder of the first Facebook ASMR group Jennifer Allen; in the years following it’s been studied in more depth by Dr. Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia, who created ASMR University, an online news resource and centre. To date, there are three peer-reviewed studies on the phenomenon: one at Swansea University, another at the Canadian University of Dubai, and a third by a team of researchers at the University of Manitoba. In all of these studies, the researchers acknowledge that ASMR has “escaped the eye of scientific research” and that there has been no “rigorous scientific exploration of ASMR, nor of the conditions which trigger or end the ASMR state.” Adding to the difficulty is the fact that not everyone is capable of experiencing it—and if they are, the feeling (and its triggers) vary widely. That said, they all seem to agree that something is going on—and that something might very well help ease stress or chronic pain.
Science aside, ASMR is having a real moment. ASMR creators—better known as ASMRtists—on YouTube, Instagram and Soundcloud are making upwards of six figures for their hypnotic and sleep-inducing vids. There are even TV shows on Netflix you can watch (bless Bob Ross and his painting) to help guide you into an ASMR state.
To find out more, I reached out to a Canadian ASMRtist, the owner of Toronto-based ASMR spa and a few experts researching this burgeoning new field and asked them how they create, curate and cultivate ASMR experiences for people like me. Whether you love slime vids or want to try an ASMR-triggering spa visit, there’s a sensory something out there for everyone.
How ASMR went viral
I’m willing to bet that if you opened your Instagram explore page RN, you’d be met with at least three vids of pastel-coloured homemade slime being poked, prodded and pulled. The #slime hashtag on Instagram is currently host to more than four million posts, and it’s constantly growing, thanks to a global network of slimers—the unofficial title of people who make slime for slime vids. Slimers use glue, water and sodium borate (also known as borax)—all of which you can find at the grocery store—to get the base, a concoction somewhere in between a liquid and a solid, similar to one you probs made in science class. Into that base, some slimers fold in decorations, like glitter and beads.
The most popular #slime videos are the ones with audible crunches and pops that come as the base is mixed with other ingredients. That’s likely because repetitive noises like these are believed to induce ASMR. “A general trait of ASMR triggers is that they are gentle and relaxing sounds and visuals. Slime videos fit this general definition,” says Richard. “In particular, some slime videos may make sounds similar to mouth sounds, which are a common ASMR trigger for some individuals.” No one knows exactly why mouth sounds, like whispering, may act as triggers for ASMR, but it may have something to do with a biological response.
Distraction plays a part, too. “The colours and sounds are so curious that it switches our thoughts from our worries and refocuses them to the delightful swirls and squishes in the videos,” says Richard. Followers of the slime trend—of which there are millions (seriously)—use the hashtag #OddlySatisfying to capture the sense of calm that can come from watching one of these vids.
For some, watching and hearing slime swirl around a screen won’t be enough to elicit the tingles that are one notable, but not yet scientifically confirmed marker of ASMR.
That’s where ASMR role play comes in, which involves an ASMRtist pretending to be a certain character in front of the camera, allowing the viewer to experience the video in first person as either a participant or an observer. FLARE chatted with Imane of YouTube channels PokiMane and Poki ASMR to learn more about how she creates her viral ASMR-inducing content.
Imane is a 21-year old Canadian ASMRtist based in Los Angeles, and she has two YouTube channels: Pokimane, where she streams herself playing popular video games, and Poki ASMR is where she produces ASMR content, such as role play.
For Imane, ASMR found her—not the other way around. “I used to listen to videos on a really low volume to help me fall asleep because I found it relaxing,” the YouTuber explains. “Then I found out about ASMR videos on YouTube and realized it was basically the same thing.”
Imane is an avid consumer of ASMR herself, and, in her opinion, that’s the trick to making successful videos: “You have to be really immersed in the ASMR experience to properly understand what sounds good,” says Imane. “I watched a lot of videos of successful ASMRtists, so I can tell what good ASMR is like, and whether or not it gives me ‘tingles.’”
Despite the scientific ambiguity about how ASMR works, Imane’s ASMR channel has amassed more than 100,000 subscribers in less than three months—and she pulls in anywhere from 200,000 to more than 800,000 views with a single video. Her most popular video (with more than 821,000 views, to date) captures her first time using a 3Dio microphone—a microphone that makes it sound like someone is touching your ears, she explains. For ASMRtists, it’s all about capturing that high-quality, lifelike sound, which is exactly what this microphone provides.
Imane’s ASMR videos and ones like hers largely feature soft whispering, the handling of various objects (like packaging, which can be crinkled and cut up), and blowing and chewing sounds. Imane made a video where she whispers about and chews a variety of sushi rolls, and it has garnered more than 300,000 views since she posted it in June.
Seeking out ASMR in real life
For people looking to trigger ASMR without the help of social media, Toronto’s Terri Renaud has a unique solution. Renaud’s company The Spa Club offers a series of traditional treatments with ASMR add-ons for people who know what triggers them and for those wanting to learn what might bring on that sense of low-grade euphoria.
Renaud knows ASMR triggers are subjective, so every service can be modified at a person’s discretion. The Full Spa Therapy Fresh & Firm Facial with ASMR, for example—a 60-minute treatment priced at $80—is the standard facial we all know and love plus “personal attention; face, neck and shoulder massage; scalp and head massage; ear massage; soft speaking; water sounds; aromatherapy; and face touching,” she says.
According to Renaud, around 40 percent of her clientele are in search of ASMR-related services, and most request scalp and ear massages, as well as foot reflexology, which involves stimulating reflex points on the foot to help relieve tension in corresponding areas of the body. Renaud is a huge promoter of ASMR as a tool to manage stress, as she says many of her clients often “leave [the spa] like they’re in a trance, almost incoherent.” Of the general worries of everyday life, Renaud says: “The world is a pretty startling place. When people click into an ASMR video or come to me for ASMR services, they know what to expect and that’s soothing.”
New York City-based Whisperlodge takes a similar approach. Branded as an ASMR spa for the senses, Whisperlodge provides an in-person immersive ASMR experience by pairing clients with “trained guides.” More of an artistic exploration than a service, the sessions at Whisperlodge are customizable to include any sounds, visuals and role play desired. Basically, the folks at Whisperlodge will whisper in your ears about anything you’d like—they’ll even brush your hair to help elicit ASMR.
The science behind why some people love it
Richard of ASMR University—an ASMR resource and news centre—has written his take on ASMR dubbed the “Origin Theory,” in which he suggests specific molecules and other reasons to explain how ASMR initiates those head tingles and feelings of relaxation, sleepiness, and elevated mood. He has categorized ASMR triggers into three groups: tactile (light touching or massaging), visual (observing slow hand movements) and object-related sounds (tapping, scratching and crinkling). “Stimuli usually have one or more of the following traits: repetitive, methodical, steady pace, steady volume, and non-threatening,” says Richard.
The basic idea behind Richard’s theory is that ASMR triggers activate what he calls the biological pathways of bonding between individuals. “Examples of inter-personal bonding include parent and infant bonding, family-member bonding, friendship bonding, and romantic-partner bonding,” says Richard.
“Bonding involves specific behaviours which stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin,” says Richard. The thinking goes that when you engage with media which displays your ASMR triggers, your body is tricked into thinking you’re bonding, and those same endorphins are released, making the experience pleasurable and personal.
Professor and Chair at the Department of Philosophy at York University in Toronto, Muhammad Ali Khalidi engages in philosophical explorations of ASMR. In a post for Blog of the APA, Khalidi writes about self-diagnosing his ASMR after listening to the podcast This American Life. “Ever since childhood, I’ve known that there are certain situations that will send me into a relax state in which I feel pleasant sensations running up and down my scalp, back, parts of my arms and beyond,” he writes.
Khalidi is most interested in exploring if ASMR can be real, despite not displaying observable in changes in the brain. “By it’s very nature, it’s a subjective experience, which is why scientists can’t seem to pin down what is happening,” says Khalidi.
“It’s had this explosive growth in terms of online content, and there seems to be enough commonality to give us a reason to believe that there is a phenomenon here,” says Khaildi, who believes the internet is to thank for this new area of scientific exploration. “How it exactly works, no one really knows yet. But I think there’s enough there for scientists to embark on a more systematic inquiry.”