I’m in the middle of a huge move. I’ve moved frequently throughout my life, but this is different. It’s a vast 1100 mile change, and for the first time, I’m making it all alone. It’s stressful and is taking a toll on my anxiety. To calm down during long nights of packing and planning every draining detail of my move, I turn on YouTube and load up a few videos of people gently whispering into a microphone while tapping and brushing random things from around the house.
This is the world of ASMR, and on the surface, these videos can seem completely strange. A quick search through YouTube will yield endless results of people talking intimately into microphones, fiddling with any object they can find that “makes good sounds,” and roleplaying seemingly mundane scenarios like getting a checkup by a soft-spoken doctor or receiving a haircut as the sound of scissors makes gentle snips around the camera.
These videos can get millions upon millions of views on YouTube in a short amount of time, so what exactly is going on here? What is ASMR and what makes it so wildly popular?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and describes a tingling sensation some people experience on their skin — usually on the top of their head or down their neck and back — in response to certain auditory or visual stimuli. It can be an incredibly relaxing experience that can calm one’s nerves and even help them fall asleep at the end of a stressful day.
Typical triggers include soft-spoken voices and gentle whispering, light tapping on any number of objects, fiddling with crinkly plastic packaging, brushing the microphone and roleplay. The exact items and scenarios used in creating these videos vary as each artist experiments with new sounds and roleplay plotlines. What may stimulate ASMR in one viewer might not work on another, so these YouTubers have to keep coming back with fresh ideas.
I’d wager that most people have experienced ASMR in their ordinary lives without even knowing there was a name for the phenomenon. I had a film studies teacher in college whose soft voice would cause pleasant tingles through my scalp. I’ve heard the happy painter himself, Bob Ross, referred to as the grandfather of ASMR with his gentle speech, the soft taps of his palette knives, and the soothing sounds of a canvas being brushed with color.
In fact, there’s an entire subgenre of ASMR called “unintentional ASMR” where otherwise ordinary videos unrelated to the phenomenon find a new life in the ASMR community thanks to a speaker’s voice or the careful way they work on a craft like intricate stone carving or methodical printmaking. But overwhelmingly, a vast majority of unintentional ASMR videos involve checkups at the doctor’s office.
It’s common for people to feel ASMR during events involving quiet, personal attention, which is why videos of doctors performing routine examinations tend to induce tingles. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the most common ASMR roleplay setups.
A specific variant is the cranial nerve exam roleplay, which is almost a rite of passage for ASMR YouTubers. Real-life cranial nerve exams involve checking a patient’s hearing, vision and eye movement, and a ton of other sensory stimuli that makes the test perfect for ASMR videos. Just maybe don’t take any of their medical advice too seriously. They’re artists, not medical professionals. (Most of the time, anyway.)
Yes, I do mean artists
ASMR YouTube is the most artistic art form on the site. The amount of creativity that goes into some of these roleplay videos is unbelievably cool and fascinating. Sure, you have plenty of generic haircuts and doctor visits to choose from if that’s your thing, but then some artists take it to the next level with humor, personality, and worldbuilding.
Gibi ASMR makes fun videos cosplaying as different cartoon and anime characters. FredsVoice ASMRoccasionally plays a character called the Rude English Gentleman who aggressively and hilariously insults the viewer. Goodnight Moon creates a stunning visual aesthetic for a series of ASMR videos that take place in her enchanted world of Babblebrook. Ephemeral Riftcreates ASMR videos set in a dark, surrealist nightmare world of unusual monsters, eccentric salespeople, and other strange characters that pop up in and around a fictional asylum.
It’s fitting that these ASMR YouTubers are referred to as ASMRtists to reflect their creativity. They saw an opportunity to not only help others using sound and visuals that soothe the stress and anxieties people experience, but they also claimed that space as an outlet to express themselves artistically.
So as I sit here drowning in boxes, futilely packing up all of my belongings in preparation for an intense, cross-country move, I’ll pop on yet another ASMR video to calm my nerves and explore the creative characters and worlds crafted by YouTube’s best art form.