The spine tingling phenomenon of ASMR: let me whisper in your ear

Listening through stereo headphones to someone whispering while stroking an object or doing a mundane task causes a soothing tingling sensation in some, and advertisers, locals and YouTubers are making the most of it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 June, 2017, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 5:28pm

The girl on screen runs her manicured nails over a shiny red lai see packet while whispering in hushed Cantonese. Her extra-sensitive microphone picks up every pop, tap and crackle from the paper envelope and magnifies the breathiness of her gentle voice. To some, the video would be bizarre, mildly hypnotic at most. To others, the meditative combination of soft sounds and stroking movements sends tingles down their spines.

This peculiar phenomenon is known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. YouTube is flooded with 45-minute-long clips of “ASMRtists” (usually women) gently carrying out mundane activities while narrating in whispers. The effect relies on stereo, or “binaural”, headphones, which split the sound between the listeners’ ears, immersing them in the video and making it feel like someone is whispering directly to them.

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Those who watch the videos – occasionally referred to as “tingleheads” within the community – pursue physical sensations that range from a sense of calm, to tingles radiating from the scalp, to goose bumps or shivers over the whole body. The level of reaction depends on the visual or audio “trigger”, which differ from person to person. Some of the most popular include tapping and crinkling everyday objects, demonstrating how to apply make-up, or simply inaudible whispering. As well as that pleasant tingling sensation, viewers use the videos help them relax, destress, focus, feel more positive, or fall asleep.

A great many ASMR videos involve role-playing – the artist becomes a receptionist taking down your details, an optometrist conducting an eye exam, or a hairdresser talking you through your new ‘do. There are endless scenarios, but all attempt to recreate real-life situations that some find inexplicably soothing and pleasurable.

The girl in the lai see video goes by the moniker ASMR Canto and does not want to reveal her real name. Using just her laptop and a Blue Yeti USB microphone, she has been producing videos for three years and building a local fanbase in Hong Kong. She discovered ASMR’s allure when she happened upon a hand massage video, which she remembers feeling instantly “calmed and mesmerised” by.

Motivated by the lack of Cantonese-speaking creators, she started making her own videos. Her first clip featured her handling a pair of plastic-wrapped chopsticks before crackling the stiff packaging of a Korean face mask, putting a distinctively Asian stamp on the genre. In her most popular video, which has nearly 9,000 views, she arranges the wooden pieces of a Chinese chess set while lightly tapping them together.

She says she appreciates fan feedback, and loves experimenting with new triggers. “I usually watch my own videos before uploading online to “test out” the tingles,” she says. “My viewers have quite diverse tastes when it comes to triggers. Hair brushing, role play and mukbang [eating shows] are some of my most requested videos.” Her channel demonstrates an astute awareness of her fans’ preferences: in one video, she taps her nails on bottle of bubble bath while repeating “bubbly” and “pop” over and over, letting their triggering lip sounds take full effect.

ASMR Canto’s YouTube channel has almost 1,000 subscribers, yet she says she’d rather her family and friends remained unaware of her hobby for the time being.

If the movement had a queen, it would be Gentle Whispering’s Maria, the first ASMRtist to surpass 300 million YouTube views. The Russian-born star of ASMR, who now lives in the US, gained popularity thanks to her particularly sweet voice, relentless work ethic (almost 300 videos to date), and closeness to her subscribers, who now number almost one million.

To those immune to the effects of ASMR, the idea of watching someone fold towels for 26 minutes would be boring or even tortuous. But a video titled Relaxing Fluffy Towel Folds by Gentle Whispering has more than 2.1 million views.

According to Google Trends, “ASMR” began taking off as a search term worldwide towards the end of 2010, with the first recorded searches in Hong Kong registered in December 2011. Since then, interest has steadily increased and more Hongkongers than ever before were searching for ASMR in May 2017.

The phenomenon may not have reached mainstream status, but its reach is significant enough that brands have begun to cotton on, incorporating binaural sound techniques in marketing campaigns.

Last year, Ritz Crackers in South Korea created an ASMR-inspired adverts that featured a young women nibbling on a biscuit while whispering the brand’s slogans. The commercial was a hit, racking up more than six million views.

Dove chocolate in mainland China took things to the next level, calling in big-name celebrities and partnering with science platform Guokr to lend kudos to its experimental adverts.

In one ad, Chinese megastar Angelababy plays with the chocolate bar’s foil wrapper, arranging the bars in a satisfyingly neat row, before unwrapping them and taking loud bites. “The ultimate enjoyment should be as silky smooth as this,” she whispers.

The phrase autonomous sensory meridian response was coined in February 2010 by New Yorker Jennifer Allen, who has since become one of the foremost experts on the movement. Four years later,

Allen teamed up with psychologist and neurologist Karissa Burnett and biopharmaceutical researcher Craig Richard to set up the ASMR Research Project. The trio set up an ongoing survey to investigate whether there was a link between experience of ASMR and variables such as personality traits, genders, ages and medical conditions.

Eventually, they hope to “provide one of the first and largest global, demographic studies about ASMR published in a peer-reviewed journal”, Richard writes on his website.

They have so far found that “Individuals who experience ASMR scored higher for openness to experience and neuroticism, and scored lower for conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion”, he says.

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Richard proposes that ASMR stimulation is rooted in interpersonal bonding behaviours and trust-building that begins when a baby is soothed by its parents. Our ability to survive and thrive relies on building relationships with others, and gentle touches make us feel secure and relaxed, releasing endorphins and feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

According to Richard, ASMR videos simulate the process, getting users hooked on those pleasurable sensations. “Whether done unintentionally or intentionally, individuals who trigger ASMR in other individuals demonstrate most of the behavioural traits of bonding behaviour used by parents to soothe, comfort, and relax infants,” he says.

Dr Melanie Bryan, a Hong Kong-based psychologist, says the link between sound and its influence on our mental state goes way back. “ASMR is an interesting concept, but far from new. Music has been used throughout the centuries for various purposes, from getting hyped before going into battle to going into altered states of consciousness to deep relaxation,” she explains.

Just as spas use whale noises and Buddhist chanting to relax customers, and gyms use bass-pumping songs to increase energy, ASMR taps into the strong effect sounds have on our brains. Though Bryan is unsure of the efficacy of ASMR as a therapy, she notes its potential value in relieving tension, reducing insomnia, or guiding the listener out of an anxious state of mind, at least for the duration of a video.

Online creators are similarly wary to claim that their videos can alleviate complex psychological conditions. “This video is created for relaxation, entertainment and inducing ASMR/tingles/chills only,” reads the disclaimer on Gentle Whispering’s videos. “This video cannot replace any medication or professional treatment. If you have sleep/anxiety/psychological troubles please consult your physician.”

Yet anecdotal evidence from fans suggests that ASMR has been a life-changing discovery for many. Meanwhile, there are those who are simply immune to the tingles. On why certain people are more susceptible to ASMR than others, Richard posits: “It may just be that only some people are extra sensitive to, or produce more of, the brain chemicals involved in ASMR – this would be similar to the biological explanations which have been shown to explain why some people like some foods but dislike other foods.”

There’s still much research to be done before anyone can claim to understand ASMR and why watching someone have their hair brushed makes certain people go all gooey. But what’s clear is that, amid the deafening, frenetic backdrop of the city, slipping on a pair of headphones and listening to someone whisper comforting words into your ear is a way of bringing back a little intimacy into a world of increasing emotional detachment.