Braingasms and towel folding – the ASMR effect

Posted on September 5, 2012


“Hey everybody, this is The Water Whispers and I’ve decided to make a towel folding video today, and maybe if I have enough time I’ll do some paper cutting…”, murmurs a gentle, lilting female voice. You wouldn’t think you’re listening to the beginning of a hit Youtube video, but over 6,000 viewings say otherwise.

Strange things are afoot in the online video community of late. Nail tapping, towel folding, laptop cleaning and whispering videos are popping up all over the internet – many of which are attracting thousands, sometimes millions of hits. Are said activities being carried out in the buff? Perhaps they’re a strange prelude to watching Olly Murs get pelted with soggy hobnobs? Sadly not – their popularity is all because of something called ASMR.

Have you ever found yourself reacting oddly to certain stimuli? Maybe a colleague’s table-top nail drumming has left you with a pleasant buzzing feeling in the top of your head, or the sound of chalk on a blackboard almost puts you to sleep? I remember the sound of my boss gently tapping away at her keyboard in the afternoons used to leave me feeling ready to collapse in a dribbling heap on my desk, and as a child I found Neil Buchanan’s drawing sessions on Art Attack deliciously relaxing, but had no idea why. It turns out I’m not the first person to feel this way.

Only in the last two years has this tingly phenomenon been given a name – the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, more commonly known as ASMR. It even has its own research and support website, which describes ASMR as a ‘physical sensation characterised by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine and through the limbs.’ Not everyone can experience this – some people just aren’t susceptible to ASMR whereas others are highly sensitive.

I happily fall into the latter category. A friend introduced me to this online community of whisperers and yoghurt pot tappers about a year ago when I was having trouble sleeping – and I swiftly discovered that by intentionally triggering my ASMR response by listening to these videos, I could be wafted off to sleep on a soporific wave of relaxation in no time. It’s the audio-visual equivalent of a lovely, mellow druggy high – without the side effects of sleeping pills or inexplicably waking up in the middle of the night to mount your clothes horse. It’s also a very difficult sensation to explain, so if you haven’t the faintest clue what I’m rambling on about, it’s likely you’ve yet to experience ASMR yourself. To a non ASMRer these videos must be the most brain meltingly dull thing to ever grace the internet.

Towel folding – obscenely boring, or brain carbonatingly relaxing?

Insomnia seems to be a common theme among those cruising the ASMR waves. Some listeners even seem to be using ASMR videos to soothe anxiety and symptoms of clinical depression – with a few commenters going as far as to say they can be used to halt their own panic attacks. Understandably the comments sections are also saturated with declarations of gratitude and affectionate praise for those providing this ASMR fix for their stressed out and sleep deprived subscribers – there’s a real community feel within this internet sub-set.

The ASMR high is commonly referred to as an orgasm for the brain, or a ‘braingasm’ but it’s not a remotely sexual sensation. Sexy time would actually completely interrupt the meditative flow of this natural high. Get off me Dave, I just want to watch videos of people playing with grains of rice, yeah? It’s still a bit weird though. There’s nothing about watching a complete stranger paint their nailsbuild a jenga tower or run you through the contents of their purse that feels normal – I think I’d rather someone walked in on me watching hardcore porn than one of these videos. Nonetheless if you can get past this voyeuristic discomfort, they’re a fantastic tool for relaxation, and by Tarquin does it feel good.

So is it possible that something so easy to trigger, which feels so great, really has no harmful side effects? Slight headaches, tiredness and nausea are listed as possible reactions but – aside from blissful sleepiness – I’ve yet to experience any of these. The only slight downside to ASMR is that it’s a little addictive. I don’t mean this in the heroin habit sense. You’re unlikely to end up weeping, sweat-drenched and shaking in the corner after three days without being able to watch someone delicately massage moisturiser into their hands, but you might just miss it a tad more than you’re comfortable admitting.

After all, what if you find yourself somewhere without internet access and you need that tingly goodness to get to sleep? I don’t see the ASMR video community ever branching off into illegal, underground cartels or loitering on street corners to whisper at kids and lure them into a web of ASMR addiction – but when you reach the point where you need someone attached to your bedside, whispering their shopping list in your ear to elicit slumber, I think you know you might have a problem.

Originally published on the Huffington Post Blog here.