The Brain-Tingling Whisperers of ASMR

Stock brokerage commercials, seduction scenes, confessions, conspiracies… We have long known the power of a whisper. Still, when John Goodman made an ASMR commercial whispering about McDonald’s quarter-pounder and Ikea made an ASMR video of a woman lightly tapping on back-to-school products and the number of YouTube videos of people whispering or making toast sailed past 13 million, I wondered if this was neuroscience or a marketing fad.

A little bit of both.

The tingle first went public in 2001, when a presumably laidback individual with the user name okaywhatever) titled a forum post “weird sensation feels good.” Six years later, WhisperingLife created the first deliberately tingle-inducing videos on YouTube. In 2010, a cybersecurity expert formed a Facebook page for people who experience what she named Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, hoping to give it a little scientific street cred.

Supposedly about half of us can have one of these tingly responses, and it is sufficiently pleasant to warrant a comparison to orgasm.

Studies began to be published in 2014, and early researchers in the U.K. found that people’s descriptions were remarkably consistent: a tingling sensation that starts toward the back of the scalp and runs down the spine, sometimes also moving outward toward the shoulders.” More research followed, along with articles in New Scientist, Smithsonian, The New York Times, Psychology Today, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Social Neuroscience … and even a website called ASMR University.

Skeptics have dismissed the phenomenon as “a vast consensual hallucination,” and I was ready to join them. Somebody whispering an explanation of some pleasant procedure step by boring step, or folding towels, or pouring a beer in the middle of the SuperBowl game and letting me hear it fizz? I can think of easier paths to ecstasy.

Only when I cradled our new dog on my lap—sixty pounds of standard poodle, panting after a manic series of loops and leaps as he investigated, after a year of false starts, the house that would be his home—did I realize what might be happening. Dogs are a lot like toddlers, neurologically, and I was whispering reassurances over and over again to settle his nerves, just the way a mother might do with a child. The words cease to matter; it is the softness of the voice, the intent to soothe. You stay very still, no sudden movements, and you keep your voice gentle and warm, and soon the coiled nerves begin to unwind, the muscles soften, the breathing settles.

Could the whisperings of a stranger on a computer screen be triggering that same early-life response?

The most popular ASMR video star on YouTube is a pretty young woman who often comes very close, her face filling the camera just the way a mother’s face would loom over a baby’s. And the mother-child parallel worked nicely with the “personal attention” videos, in which a spa attendant murmurs you through all the pleasant grooming and massage you are about to receive in the virtual dimension, and with all the hair-brushing videos. Who did not love, for some inexplicable reason, watching their mother brush her hair or get ready to go out?

I was so excited to have a theory that I was almost disappointed to find confirmation. It was like planning for years to scale a mountain peak, then arriving and finding the empty Champagne bottle of the guy who got there first. One researcher has suggested that ASRM triggers neurological pathways involved in emotional bonding. Another notes that sibilant sounds (like a mother’s ssshh) are especially effective. Levels of oxytocin, the molecule released in moments of tenderness, are reported to rise. One team notes that the broadest explanation for ASMR triggers is their relation to “affiliative behaviors…the caring behaviors which occur between parents and children, romantic partners, and friends.” People report feeling comforted and cared for while watching the videos. Even the physiology matches: ASMR slows the heart rate, but it increases emotional arousal (measured by skin conductance). Parts of the brain associated with reward and emotional arousal light up on scans. Those who feel an ASMR response say it makes them feel happier and more relaxed; pain is soothed; they are lulled to sleep.

Granted, my theory does not mesh too well with the ASMR scenarios that involve crisp sounds, like tapping fingernails (unless you had a really nice but impatient mother). But now that I think of it, a video analog to light touch might be the tactile sounds of tapping, paper softly crinkling, silk rustling, a pencil scratching. What seems most significant is that all these videos feel very safe. Their deliberate slowness and precision give the viewer a sense of control, and the immersiveness means that for once, you will not be distracted or startled by louder, less predictable stimuli.

A 2017 study adds information about which of us feel these sensations, comparing against the “big five” inherited personality traits that shape us from the moment of birth. People who regularly experienced ASMR scored higher on openness to experience and neuroticism and lower on conscientiousness, extroversion, and agreeableness. My amateur interpretation? They were radically open to something new, and sensitive and prickly enough to need soothing, and they were not bouncing around interacting all the time or busy checking off their to-do lists.

As for me, most of the videos left me cold, which is probably inevitable, because I was trying so hard to analyze my own response. But ASMR did explain an isolated experience years ago, when I was whispering back and forth (because our comments were irreverent) with a guy for whom I felt only a sisterly fondness. There it was: a tingle down my spine, a warm feeling that was almost seductive. I shook it off, but the memory was disconcerting; it now feels far less incestuous.

We often scare ourselves for no good reason, because it is as fast and easy as a water slide to draw the wrong conclusion. No wonder we misunderstand one another daily. The same stimulus can cause some people to feel the pleasure of ASMR and others to feel what is called misophonia, a fight-or-flight response to certain sounds. These are the folks who act like you have just crashed their Rolls Royce into a barn if you accidentally squeak a piece of chalk across a blackboard. They might stomp away from the dinner table if you crunch on a pickle or double over with nausea if they see someone squish their fingers in mud or slime. The key to these intense reactions might be their speed: Sufferers have more myelin, which speeds the information through their brain, causing them to register the sound as threatening before they have identified it. Often they find those soothing ASMR videos “creepy.”

Has half of humanity always tingled at a whisper or a tapping? “Some people have stronger responses to sensory phenomena than others do,” explains Dr. Todd Braver, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. “I can’t say if this is something that has been around a while or some novel thing happening because of societal changes. But it can be self-reinforcing: Someone gives it a label, and people begin seeking it out, and soon there is a community that supports them…”

And suddenly the world is full of whispers.