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A few months ago, I was on a train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.
Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “sound of pages”. What I discovered stunned me. There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, which evokes a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.
The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many ASMR triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role playing — the videographer, usually a breathy woman, talks softly into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last longer.
The videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.) Many viewers are unsettled by the sensuality of the videos, often mistaken for sexuality. Two of the most well-known ASMRtists, “Maria” of GentleWhispering (more than 250,700 subscribers) and Heather Feather (more than 146,500), said that although they sometimes received lewd emails and requests, many of their followers had reached out to them with notes of gratitude for the relief from anxiety, insomnia and melancholy that their videos provided.
Some say the mundane or monotonous quality of the videos lulls us into a much-needed state of serenity. Others find comfort in being the sole focus of the ASMR actor’s tender affection. Or perhaps the assortment of sounds and scenarios taps pleasing childhood memories. I grew up falling asleep hearing the sounds from my father’s home office: An engineer, he was continually sorting through papers, tapping keys and assembling and disassembling PCs.
Dr Carl W Bazil, a sleep disorders specialist at Columbia University, said ASMR videos might provide novel ways to switch off our brains. “People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal,” he said. “Behavioral treatments — guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditation — are meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. ASMR videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.”
So far, it seems to work for me. Like many insomniacs, I have tried natural remedies like valerian root or melatonin, vigorous exercise regimens and strong sleeping pills. But sleep rarely came. Nothing has worked as well and consistently as watching a man in an ASMR video sort through a stamp collection or Titanic paraphernalia.
But locating the neurological underpinnings of this trippy sensation won’t be easy. Many scientists I reached out to shied away from the subject, saying the area was pseudoscience.
Bryson Lochte, a postbaccalaureate fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse who looked into ASMR for his senior thesis as a neuroscience major at Dartmouth College last year, has submitted his paper for publication in a journal. Lochte said, “We focussed on those areas in the brain associated with motivation, emotion and arousal to probe the effect ASMR has on the ‘reward system’.” He compared ASMR to another idiosyncratic but well-studied sensation called musical frisson, which provokes a thrilling ripple of chills or goose bumps (technically termed piloerection) over one’s body in emotional response to music.
Perhaps the everyday experiences that ASMR videos capture — whispering, crinkling, the opening and closing of boxes — evoke similar anticipatory mechanisms, sparking memories of past pleasures that we relive each time we watch and listen.