PRINT November 2016


autonomous sensory meridian response

Still from GentleWhispering’s 2014 YouTube video ~ Relaxing Fluffy Towels Folds ~, 26 minutes 14 seconds.

THE THIRTY-FOUR-MINUTE VIDEO opens with a tight shot of rings embedded in a velvet display case. As a softly accented voice describes them one by one, a white woman’s manicured fingers stroke the black fabric of the case and tap gently on the metal bands and stones. The voice and hands belong to Maria, who is not selling these rings but rather providing a specific experience for her viewers known as ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. A Russian-born expat now residing in the US, Maria is perhaps the most popular practitioner of the growing online phenomenon of ASMR videos; almost eight hundred thousand people subscribe to her YouTube channel, GentleWhispering, and her videos have been watched hundreds of millions of times. In one offering, she counts a stack of greeting cards; in another, she plays with her friend’s hair; in another, she conducts a men’s suit fitting; in another, she folds towels; in another, she presses lightly on such objects as a bag of marshmallows and a packet of beef jerky.

Sometimes called brain orgasm or head tingles—and, more clinically, attention induced observant euphoria—ASMR refers to the pleasurable somatic response (often chills or vibrations on the scalp or back of the neck) that can be activated by acoustic or visual stimulation. Certain common stimuli, or “triggers,” include whispering, tapping, the crinkling of paper, and acts of grooming, self-care, and personal attention (makeup application, simulated doctor’s exams). ASMR aficionados, or “tingleheads,” use headphones to heighten the sonic effect, and watch or listen for any number of reasons: because the videos are relaxing, because they help induce sleep, because they are transfixing, because they promote a kind of mesmerized stupefaction in which before you know it you have watched someone flip through the pages of a blank journal for two hours.

Since the acronym was first coined by enthusiast Jennifer Allen on a Facebook group in 2010, ASMR has emerged as a diverse and fractured internet subculture. Many thousands of self-described ASMRtists regularly post videos; they are mainly, but not exclusively, women, and Maria’s is far from the only game in town. There is the African American man who shows off his hat collection by softly running a brush over their brims. There is the Italian woman in a black mask and nurse’s outfit who performs a virtual ear cleaning, angling her cotton swabs toward the camera lens as if they could penetrate your canals. There’s the person who offers advice about bra fitting for all genders on a trans-friendly channel. There’s the guy from Málaga, Spain, who reads Harry Potter in barely audible Spanish. There are people slowly pouring plastic beads into bowls and drumming their nails on tabletops; Turkish bath rituals; Korean beauty makeovers; and on and on. In some “personal attention” videos, you are directly addressed, and the screen becomes coterminous with your skin as the lens is grazed with a powder puff to approximate the sensation of your own face being caressed.

Although there is an obviously sensual component to ASMR, its sexual aspect is controversial. Many affiliated with the informal internet community disavow its erotic potential and shun the word orgasm, fearing ASMR’s elision with pornography and emphasizing that its distinct prolonged tickling does not result in a “peak” release. Others in the ASMRotica subgroup embrace the resonance, creating videos explicitly meant to arouse. As artist Jeanine Oleson noted in her essay “Breathe In” (2015), ASMR, though frequently focused on mundane activities such as unboxing packages and presenting thrift store finds, is at the same time “fetishistic (or perverse).” Specialized offshoots proliferate, including sci-fi-role-playing ASMR videos—probing physical exams performed by alien abductors, for example, and people gearing up for space journeys by fiddling with various dials on makeshift costumes.

I am not trained in sound studies or neurology, and no doubt the dissertations in progress about ASMR will do a much better job of rigorously relating it to musical frisson, for instance, or explaining how it works scientifically. (Peer-reviewed literature and results of controlled experiments are already available.) What I am, however, is addicted, and as such I bring a distinct if compromised expertise to the subject, a fraught expertise gained from viewing many, many hours of ASMR videos—sometimes, when I’m really in its grip, daily—over the past couple of years. I have spent more time than I want to admit riveted by the towel folder and the Harry Potter reader. For me, banality is part of the appeal. Like TV, it is a form of passive consumption on demand, but unlike with TV, there is no plot to follow, no narrative to track.

This is not to say I’m an uncritical fan; just the opposite. My dependency has inspired a profound ambivalence toward ASMR, tinged with feelings of self-recrimination—I am constantly astonished at, and frequently repelled by, how intoxicating I find these videos. But are these hours in fact squandered? Some Redditors connect ASMR to vipassana meditation and the heightened state of awareness generated by the act of noticing, but in my case these videos merely carry me to a trance-like place of oblivion. Still, the hypnotics of ASMR have provided a welcome break (or so I tell myself) from the churning pressure to be constantly productive.

An emerging media genealogy for online ASMR videos includes the airy vocalizations and stippled brushwork of the PBS painter Bob Ross, as well as the endless display of products that stream across the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Other analogues are the calming murmur of cooking shows and the absorbing actions in films of products being manufactured. One might also look to some early video art—such as Children’s Tapes, 1974, in which artist Terry Fox sought to focus the viewer’s attention with his close-ups of everyday objects—although it’s unlikely those provoked many spine-thrilling tingles. With its grating, even aggressive stance toward its audience, video art from the late 1960s and early ’70s may be more instructive as a counterpoint. Rather than seeking to elicit corporeal enjoyment to generate screen views, someone like Vito Acconci—as Anne M. Wagner has aptly stated—made videos in which “any guarantees of pleasure . . . have sunk . . . to something of an all-time low.”

Yet there are pieces of video art that unintentionally function as ASMR triggers for me. Take Jennifer Bornstein’s Collectors’ Favorites, 1994, in which the artist explains her collections of everyday stuff to a cable access host. I found myself rewatching it on my laptop again and again. Bornstein’s sibilant voice as she talked about the various sizes of Starbucks paper cups prompted that familiar feeling. Indeed, ASMR is a mode of experience rather than a genre; and it has become, inevitably, fodder for those we might call traditional artists—as opposed to the more vernacular ASMRtists whose work is not aimed at fine arts institutions—including Claire Tolan, a sound artist living in Berlin, and Los Angeles–based Julie Weitz, whose immersive installation Touch Museum, 2015, projected videos exploring ASMR and featured a sound track by the composer Deru. Recording artists are launching ASMR albums, hoping to capitalize on the phenomenon, but the vast sea of videos available online suggests that the perceptual effects of ASMR might have already found their ideal medium.

The economics subtending the overwhelming output of ASMR videos are constantly in motion; YouTube monetizes viewership via ad revenue. Maria, somewhat exceptionally, pays her rent through ASMR. But only a very small percentage of ASMR creators receive significant money from their logistical and emotional labors. They produce all those hours of content for reasons beside income: to participate and gain renown in ASMR’s subcultures, to add their whispering voices to the growing chorus. And there can be costs. Here’s a warning if you don’t want your mellow harshed (unfortunately applicable to everything posted online or, really, any utterance in public culture): Avoid reading comments. White female and nonwhite male and female ASMR creators are often trolled by misogynist and racist creeps; some ASMRtists end up deleting their accounts.

The explosion of ASMR videos serves as a cautionary tale in an era of instant gratification: You can go numb with repeated exposure and lose all ability to feel the tingles. ASMR boards include posts by despondent, desensitized people who have binged on their favorite triggers too many times and are looking for advice on how to recapture the initial sensation. I can trace my earliest ASMR memories to being a kid at the fabric store with my mother, hearing the rustling sounds of cloth and watching her select buttons as I balanced on the delicious, shivery threshold between boredom and surrender. It was a very occasional experience, savored in the rare times it happened. But now that I can have that feeling anytime I want, I know that, eventually, I will have to admit the chill is gone.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is the coauthor, with Glenn Adamson, of Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (Thames & Hudson, 2016). her book Fray: Art and Textile Politics is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press next spring.