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An illustration of the pathway of the ASMR sensation
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ASMR (short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, where the exact definition of "meridian" seems a bit muddled) is a poorly-understood phenomenon that's generally described as a tingly or orgasm-like feeling in the brain, triggered mainly by light touching or certain sounds such as clicks, hisses, scraping, and soft speech. It is generally believed that not everyone has the ability to feel ASMR, although even those who don't often find the material designed to trigger it soothing in the same way as white noise or overnight soft rock or jazz radio.

It is not brainwave woo in the sense that ThetaHealing is but it is an actual phenomenon and a curious subject worthy of analysis and further research. That being said, there is a cultish following of ASMR, some of which is exploratory, though some is developing into a pseudoscience, making claims which are devoid of scientific study and based on anecdotal evidence. There is a tremendously popular (and profoundly weird) following of ASMR in a genre of video on YouTube.

Some background[edit]

The name is a fairly recent (since 2010) neologism with a somewhat muddled etymology; the choice of the term "meridian" is a bit of a mystery and may have a metaphorical relation to the lines that qi supposedly travels on in Traditional Chinese medicine. Although quite popular in the online world, ASMR didn't come to the attention of offline culture until receiving some media attention from companies like Huffington Post[1] and ABC News in 2014. ASMRtists and their fans form an international subculture with significant presence on YouTube and Reddit, as well as other social media sites like Facebook.

How does it work?[edit]

Well… no one knows exactly. There's been some speculation that it might be related to synesthesia, but overall exactly what it is has not been studied at much length. Others have posited that the claimed pleasurable sensation is a neurological social bonding mechanism rewarding the grooming behaviors frequently observed in many primate species. What is known is that ASMRtists (as practitioners call themselves) make extensive use of applied psychoacoustics; headphones are usually recommended for listening, as recordings often rely on 3D-sound perception for proper effect and binaural recording[note 1] is the usual method for accomplishing this. (Although mono, straight stereo recording, and stereo or surround mixing done in post are not unknown.)

ASMR is essentially the same as, or is closely related to, the phenomenon known to teenagers as "chills", the tingly rush that accompanies light touches on sensitive parts of the body, except that it's usually triggered by sounds. Early ASMRtists were inspired in large part by media like American painting instructor Bob Ross' show Joy of Painting and the extreme calmness and soothing voice he affected while demonstrating his work. ASMR videos and soundtracks generally feature similarly muted or whispering voices, along with sounds like typing, scraping, clicking, hissing, and tapping. Although some people find it to be a bit fetishy and sexualized, overt sexual content is actually quite rare; also, musical ASMR works aren't common, although a similar rush-like sensation is known among ASMR aficionados as frisson, and certain musical elements such as amplified power chords, orchestral crescendos, or notes from large instruments like pipe organs or blaster beams can trigger it.

Content of the recordings varies; though sometimes they consist only of the noise of various objects being manipulated (and one of the most iconic ASMR videos consists of little more than the performer folding napkins for twenty minutes[2]), they often incorporate a role-playing element. Chats between friends or lovers are common, but so are mundane bits of daily life like shopping, hair salons, and doctor's appointments; some ASMRtists have even done cooking shows and fantasy/SF vignettes. Most ASMRtists are female, although there's a significant contingent of male performers as well.

This is really, really weird.[edit]

Yes, yes it is. But that doesn't bother its fans or practitioners at all. Some people do find it overly intimate or outright creepy, and occasionally people have triggers that aren't based on sound or visual imagery that can't work directly with the videos. And, as mentioned above, some people seem not to get ASMR tingles at all and find the entire experience to be a bit boring and pointless.

A Reddit thread about getting sexually aroused by ASMR videos gained a surprising amount of popularity in 2012.[3] The large majority of ASMR videos on YouTube are not of a sexual nature, so this is an interesting connection. Commenters further distinguish that they are not thinking of anything sexual when arousal occurs, and some say they don't get erections, just a pleasurable pelvic muscle contraction. However, the scientific "discussion" should be taken with a grain of salt, as ASMR itself is not well-understood and this subset is even more obscure.

External links[edit]


  1. Binaural recordingWikipedia is a specialized form of live stereo recording that attempts to use the shape of the human head and ears to create a surround sound-like effect using headphones. It is not to be confused with binaural beats, which aren't really much more than an amusing trick of acoustics.