Most of you will watch a video like this and determine that you’ve stumbled upon some exceedingly softcore porn. But for a handful of you, Tena ASMR’s binaurally recorded whispers, murmurs, taps, clinks, and crinkles might trigger Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR: a tingling sensation (aka “brain orgasm”) that spreads from the back of your head down your neck and spine, accompanied by a feeling of deep relaxation, somnolence, and wellbeing. Though science is still catching up to the “Whisper Community” of ASMRtists and their listeners, recent studies have suggested a relationship between ASMR and forms of synesthesia such as misophonia, ASMR’s evil twin, though the tactile concurrents in ASMR are more tangible than the typical sensory concurrents of synesthesia. Psychologists Emma L. Barratt and Nick J. Davis frame ASMR experiences as mindfulness practices much like meditation, which likewise involves a “flow state”: “intense focus and diminished awareness of the passage of time” (3). Whatever the neural basis, thousands of YouTube comments document how ASMR videos have helped listeners manage their depression, anxiety, insomnia, loneliness, and stress.
In the video above—which has racked up over 30 million views since it was posted in June 2018—ASMRMagic uses an assortment of binaural mics to create imaginative and strangely immersive, “tingles”--triggering 3-D soundscapes. Though it’s more visually striking than the typical ASMR video, it is paradigmatic of the genre in several respects. Most of the ASMRtist’s body, including her face, are off-screen, directing our attention to the “tasks” she’s performing. The video features a series of aural triggers that, when heard through headphones, seem to surround the listener, creating an intense sense of presence. The ASMRTtist’s actions are monotonous, rhythmic, slow, and deliberate. And finally, though this doesn’t apply as much to the clip above, ASMRtists often create role-playing scenarios centering on care and personal attention, adopting personas as spa therapists, hairdressers, makeup artists, nurses, or cranial nerve examiners.
The way these videos “traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic,” as Joshua Hudelson puts it, most obviously collapses spatial distance: the soundscapes create a sense of physical proximity between ASMRtists and listeners. Unsurprisingly, Buzzfeed’s “The Internet Whisperers” episode of Follow This fixates on this aspect, and while counting herself among those who get brain tingles, Scaachi Koul investigates what she calls the “artificial intimacy” of ASMR videos with as much pity as curiosity. But the temporal dynamics are also complicated. As Joceline Andersen points out, this “distant intimacy” also seems to bridge the temporal gap between the listener in the present and an ASMRtist who made these sonic impressions days, months, or years ago. ASMR videos—each vying for attention with the crunchiest honeycomb or shiniest objects to tap on—seem to traffic in the kind of frenzied stream of sensory overload-inducing digital content that has inspired movements like “digital detox” and “slow tech.” That these videos produce the opposite effect for so many listeners—inducing almost hypnotic states of hypersensitivity and intense concentration, slowing down the heart rate, and relieving anxiety—highlights the power of these 3-D soundscapes to recuperate a sense of spatiotemporal presence that has become increasingly hard to find.