Final Research Paper: The Evolution of ASMR: 9 Things You Should Know

ASMR is rising in popularity. It is on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and in the news. When asked about it, people typically have three responses: what is it, I get it, or I think it is weird. So, what exactly is ASMR? Below, find nine things you should know about the internet trend.

What is ASMR?  

ASMR or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a “tingling” feeling usually felt in the back of the head that is brought on by different audio and visual triggers. Common triggers include, soft hand motions, tapping, and whispering. Researcher, Nitin K. Ahuja, who studied the phenomenon described ASMR as, “a reliable low-grade euphoria in response to specific interpersonal triggers, accompanied by a distinct sensation of ‘tingling’ in the head and spine.” (Allocca, 2018) Predominantly, ASMR is used as a sleep aid or relaxation technique.

ASMR is actually a lot more widespread than people realize. As of a 2016, there were over 5.2 million ASMR videos on YouTube. Interest in the topic is not just restricted to the US. ASMR has found popularity globally. While these videos are proliferating, it is still only believed that approximately 20% feel it.

Think with Google reports that interestingly, most of the searches that lead to people discovering ASMR are done on a cellphone and are looking for “I want to relax” content, typically during night hours with many using ASMR to sleep.

ASMR has actually been around since 2007.

Although, the official term “ASMR” was not defined until 2010, the trend was actually first introduced to the internet on a SteadyHealth thread. Many, however, credit PBS artist, Bob Ross, as the grandfather of ASMR through his relaxing step-by-step painting videos. Annette Kowalski, a business partner of Bob Ross commented that the relaxing sounds produced in Ross’s videos were a purposeful and intentioned choice. According to ASMR University, the first YouTube channel devoted to the sensation of ASMR was started in 2009. This channel, WhisperingLife, was simply a woman whispering into the camera. Her videos were relatively casual with her sharing her daily life with viewers. ASMR videos continued to evolve becoming increasingly elaborate, incorporating settings, costumes, and professional microphones. Videos are mainly centered around triggers, role plays, and whispering. Mashable reports that role plays are commonly seen as the most popular of the ASMR video types.

According to GoogleTrends, the search term for “ASMR” (blue) began to truly rise in popularity around 2011 and 2012. Search instances for the term have been growing dramatically since reaching highs between 2016-2018. Compared to vlogs (red), which are another highly popular YouTube trend, ASMR is growing much more. This is significant because ASMR is believed to be less widely known.


The growth ASMR experienced around 2011 correlated to its increasing digital presence through its first official Facebook group and Reddit thread. It can be argued that ASMR would not have been able to grow as a therapeutic or creative medium without digital communities like Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube.

ASMR has evolved over the years and is becoming increasingly mainstream. In 2013, NPR aired a segment on ASMR. Publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times followed, exploring the new and relatively mysterious phenomenon. Even Dr. Oz included ASMR as a solution to sleep issues. These stories placed ASMR in popular culture discourse. ASMR artist subscriber counts have continued to rise with the most popular channels reaching over one million.

Maria AKA GentleWhisperingASMR is the unofficial “Queen of ASMR.”

The comments section of GentleWhispering is full of fans expressing gratitude and appreciation for the “Queen of ASMR”, Maria. On one of her most recent videos, “Sleep-inducing Haircut”, which was posted on April 9, but already had 3.1 million views, viewers left notes for the YouTuber crediting her with helping them relax, sleep, and unwind:

“Over an hour!! Ahhh, my ears are ready. Thank you for this wonderful sleep aid <3”

-Caroline ASMR

 “Oh Maria! I wish I could capture the look my 3 month old daughter has when she hears your voice… You’re just as hypnotizing to babies as you are to adults.”

-Ruabadfish02

Who is the woman helping so many finally fall asleep? Beginning her channel in 2011, Maria has one of the most popular ASMR channels on YouTube with over 1.2 million subscribers. She has been quoted in numerous publications, among which include The Washington Post, Vice, and The Smithsonian.  

In an interview with Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s Head of Culture and Trends, for his book, Videocracy, Maria shared that she first experienced ASMR as a child. Later in life, she found the online ASMR community while going through a period of personal struggle. She commented that her channel arose from her not being able to find the videos that she wanted to watch, “After a while I noticed that a lot of people concentrated on whisper videos, but nobody did other things I would want to see.” Maria was able to eventually use YouTube as her main source of income in 2015. (Allocca)

ASMR is not sexual.

One of the common reactions to ASMR is that people think that it is sexual. It is easy to see why this is an assumption. Predominantly, these videos are done by women in a quiet tones and their motions are soft. In studies done on the topic, however, it has been found that ASMR is in fact not sexual.

Allocca reports that Maria of GentleWhispering’s audience is nearly split evenly between the genders, leaning towards more women. A study out of the Swansea University Department of Psychology, found that only 5% used ASMR for “sexual stimulation”, additionally, 84% reported that they did not find ASMR to be sexual. This study showed participants content from popular ASMR artists, including, GentleWhispering, MassageASMR, ASMRrequests, and others. (Barratt et al., 2015)

In Videocracy, Allocca presents the possibility that there are more female ASMR content creators because of the nature of their voices. Maria commented on the argument, “Women themselves are very nurturing creatures by nature, so we see them as a softer, more caring gender.” (Allocca)

Gloria Poerio, a researcher studying ASMR, commented, “People who have ASMR know that it isn’t sexual – they don’t get turned on.” The disconnect in the argument seems to lie in that people who do not understand ASMR think it must be sexual because of elements like the soft speaking, personal attention, and predominance of female content creators.

ASMR Is different from frisson.

Frisson is typically descried as shivers or “chills, which come after interacting with an outside stimulant. It is different from ASMR, however, in that frisson is more often a faster experience, whereas ASMR has the potential to last for a more extended period. Frisson is characterized by “spreading rapidly” and ASMR is more a “wave-like” experience. Another important difference is that ASMR usually comes from “relaxation” and frisson is from an “exciting” stimulant. (del Campo et al., 2016)

ASMR may have health benefits.

While ASMR may not be sexual it does have potentially important health benefits. In the same study from Swansea University, it was found that 98% “sought out ASMR as an opportunity for relaxation,” 82% “used ASMR to help them sleep,” and 70% “used ASMR to deal with stress.” The two most popular triggers reported in the study were whispering (75%) and personal attention (69%). (Barratt et al., 2015)

What does this mean health-wise? The study found 80% believed ASMR had “positive mood effects”, 14% were “unsure,” and 6% said no effect. A connection to chronic pain was also found. 38 participants reported that ASMR alleviated some of their symptoms, 13 were “unsure”, and 40 said no effect. The conclusion of the study was that ASMR could “provide temporary relief in mood for those suffering from depression.” Additionally, the effect on chronic pain was worth noting, stating there was a, “significant reduction in their discomfort for several hours following an ASMR session.” (Barratt et al., 2015)

Barratt et al. state that ASMR could be thought of as a type of “mindfulness.” ASMR like other mindfulness practices encourages people to take time and focus on the moment.

Certain personality traits may be associated with ASMR sensitivity. 

A study done in Frontiers in Psychology studied what personality traits are most likely to experience ASMR sensations. To measure this, they looked specifically at traits in the Big Five Inventory. These include, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Fredborg et al., 2018)

The researchers predicted that those with ASMR sensitivity would be higher in openness to experience and neuroticism. This hypothesis was supported. The study also discovered that this same group was lower in extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness when compared to the control group. (Fredborg et al., 2018)

ASMR spas exist and you can visit one in New York.


ASMR experiences do not just have to be through YouTube. In-person ASMR experiences are starting to arise to give participants the chance to experience real-life live triggers.

Whisperlodge offers the chance to feel ASMR in a truly sensory way. Their website describes the experience as, “a sensory journey through ASMR.” The experience includes providing the spa with the triggers you would like to have included. Julie Beck, a journalist writing for The Atlantic, reported that her visit to Whisperlodge involved makeup brushing, whispers, soft sounds, and other triggers. Places like Whisperlodge provide people who feel ASMR to experience outside of the context of a video in a focused, concerted matter.

ASMR is being monetized.

Brands are beginning to incorporate ASMR into their advertisements, taking advantage of its surge in popularity. YouTubers like GentleWhispering, ASMR Darling, and ASMRRequests have all done collaborations with brands, creating sponsored content that both provides an ASMR experience and promotes a product.

KFC is an example of a company that has created an ASMR ad. Kevin Hochman, KFC CMO, commented on the ad, “There’s a lot of comfort that’s associated with ASMR, and that’s what our food delivers.”

In sum…

ASMR has a potential universality in that it is based upon human interaction and connection. Maria from Gentle Whispering commented on the topic, “Most of the time, when I look at the camera, I try to think that this is my friend . . . my family.” In the future, there will likely be opportunities for ASMR to extend its reach into many different mediums and forms.

Dr. Craig Richard, founder of ASMR University put it best, “Why are millions of people watching someone fold a napkin?” On the surface, these videos do not seem like they should be interesting or relaxing, however, there is clearly something in them that resonates with people.

If you cannot feel ASMR, but want to try it, Richard recommends, “Lying down and clearing your mind…”

References

Allocca, K. (2018). Videocracy how YouTube is changing the world…with double rainbows, singing foxes, and other trends we can’t stop watching. London: Bloomsbury.

Barratt, E. L., & Davis, N. J. (2014). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): A flow-like mental state. PeerJ. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.719

Campo, M. A., & Kehle, T. J. (2016). Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) and frisson: Mindfully induced sensory phenomena that promote happiness. International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 4(2), 99-105. doi:10.1080/21683603.2016.1130582

Fredborg, B., Clark, J., & Smith, S. D. (2017). An Examination of Personality Traits Associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00247