Hushed whispers into a microphone, mouth noises accentuated, lips and hands embracing the mic as if a performer is physically connected with the audience...
Hard to believe, perhaps, but the term ASMR – or autonomous sensory meridian response – was first coined a full decade ago in 2010 by a woman named Jennifer Allen, who started a Facebook group to collect anecdotal information about a tingling sensation she kept experiencing that was triggered by sound. She wanted to know if was only her.
It wasn’t: in the years since, AMSR has grown exponentially, with dedicated websites and big-name influencers fighting for their market share. According to Science Daily, there are 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube alone, with performers netting subscribers into the millions. Gentle Whispering, run by the Russian-American performer Maria Viktorovna, has the most with 2 million. It’s even had its share of backlash, with Ellen DeGeneres just one of those to have publicly poked fun at the form on her show.
But it’s certainly reframed how we think, not only about sound and performance, but how the internet can make us feel sensations in our bodies. No, not like that, though yes, ASMR porn is a thing, too – but plenty of ASMR content is totally safe for work.
For the uninitiated, an ASMR performer might read you a story, make relaxing nosies into the mic – anything from scrunching some paper to eating their lunch, or they may practise meditation, breathing and mindfulness exercises, and encourage you to do the same – whether you’re tuning in via YouTube, TikTok, Spotify – or in some instances, live.
Headphones can bring us closer to these intimate words and sounds, which have been clinically proven to have scientific benefits for our mental and physical health. That pleasant tingling sensation in your brain, neck or upper back? Well, that’s been linked to decreased levels of stress and sadness.
More than simply a relaxing form of entertainment, then, does ASMR have the power to soothe anxiety during times of stress – say, during a global pandemic?
“I’ve always noticed whenever there’s something going on in the world, something big, then there are lots of comments,” says ASMR performer WhispersRed – real name Emma Smith – of her YouTube channel, which has more than 900,000 subscribers and some 200,000 views for each video.
People have always come to her content for escape, says Smith, who is in her forties and was a full time mum before she began with ASMR – but things feel more urgent now. “Existing viewers are saying: ‘I’m just so grateful for ASMR. I was grateful before, but I’m really grateful now because I really need it.’”
The comments under her videos have become an alternative refuge for people struggling with their mental health this year, she observes. “Nobody wants to come to the channel and have an argument about politics, no-one mentions any names. They just say: ‘What’s going on with us right now is really difficult.’”
New research published by SEMRush reveals that online searches for ASMR rose by 22% during the first UK lockdown – and that’s only increasing as we head into winter. “Winter time in general is difficult, it’s going dark about half-past four now,” says Smith. “ASMR is used a lot during winter months anyway.”
Research by Bottlegreen suggests almost two thirds (59%) of Brits are feeling more apprehensive than ever about winter. Smith has even collaborated with the brand to produce a video featuring the sounds those surveys chose as the most comforting: crunchy leaves (33%), crackling logs (32%) and falling rain (31%).
People don’t tend to argue under ASMR videos,” Smith says of its ability to soothe. “It’s quite surprising if you’re used to going round YouTube and reading comments.” And of her followers, she says: “[They’re] just sharing their experiences really, without going too far into politics or whether they’re a masker or anti-masker – no one’s getting into any of that which is really nice.”
Smith certainly knows her audience. In her most recent video, she tells them in a hushed but assertive voice: “I think the most revolutionary thing any of us can do right now is stay calm.” Another, titled simply, Comfort for Anxiety, includes her advice on breathing techniques and ways to reframe the mind for those suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.
With a rise in stress and anxiety during the pandemic, it’s no wonder people are experimenting with new forms of self-care. Ecotherapist Helen Edwards previously told HuffPost UK she’s experienced a surge in requests for her services since lockdown, and helplines such as Mind have reported twice the usual call volume for this time of year in requests from those struggling.
Here’s a simple reason why ASMR is particularly easy to adopt and engage with, suggests Smith. ″Sound is everywhere,” she says. “But unless you’re really aware of it, you don’t realise how much of an impact it has on your day.”
Some ASMR performers take a more literal approach to helping audiences with their Covid-19 anxiety. YouTuber ASMR Darling plays a doctor in her videos, checking audiences’ eyes and swabbing their mouths (trust us, it’s all in the performance) to check for signs of the virus. “There’s a lot of panic about the coronavirus right now, and it’s important that we establish what is fact and what is not true,” she says in the video, which has over 400,000 views.
Another performer, DeanASMR, has an alternative take with his clip, Doing Your Make Up In The Corona Virus Quarantine Room, in which he whispers his recommendations for top beauty products, alongside entertaining commentary.
For her part, Smith listens to ASMR as she takes her make-up off before bed. “I’ll have the sound on while I’m falling asleep most nights... I’m usually asleep within a few minutes.” Sound is really underrated, she says. “If you think that you can feel intense relaxation from a sound, even if it’s just tapping on a table, it leads you to understand that other sounds have effects on the body as well.”
Regaling some of her favourite everyday sounds, she says: “You can fall asleep listening to nature programmes, can’t you, because of the voice. And snooker on a Sunday afternoon after you’ve had your lunch – listening to the balls, and that quiet voice in the background explaining the moves and everything.”
Perhaps ASMR is nostalgic, then, a throwback to childhood, to bedtime stories and whispering games, to first experiencing that tingling sensation in our lives.
“It’s always been there,” agrees Smith. “When you were little, when someone was brushing your hair or when kids at school would draw letters on your back when you’re listening to the teacher read a story. Or you would feel it from being in the classroom and hearing other people put their pencils away in their case.”
And contrary to what some say about ASMR being sexual at its root, Smith says it actually makes her feel parental. “I just really like to do the things like a virtual massage or a facial: anything that’s me caring for someone or something, or sending someone to sleep or tucking you in before you go to bed,” she says.
“It’s just a nice feeling to be motherly. I know that the people who watch, or the majority, are watching for, you know, specific reasons. Perhaps they’re carers. And they need a bit of attention themselves.”