I often fall asleep listening to YouTube videos of a stranger speaking softly while she pretends to braid my hair (or make me tea, or massage my scalp). Or while she whispers about the candles she’s making, the starchy shirts she’s crinkling slowly, or the towels she’s folding. What matters most to me about these videos isn’t what she says but rather the quality of her voice (calm, soothing) and the attitude she projects (do I trust her? does she seem genuine? does she have a little sense of humor about all of this?).
I’ll usually listen to these videos on my phone — sometimes with headphones, but usually without — and after a couple minutes, I’ll lay the phone face-down on my bed, close my eyes and listen until I fall asleep.
If you haven’t heard of ASMR — and even if you have, maybe on This American Life, Reddit or elsewhere on the internet — the descriptions make it sound pretty deeply weird. And, it is pretty weird. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which isn’t particularly clarifying on its own, but the general idea is that a lot people exhibit pleasurably relaxed, almost trance-like, responses to certain sounds, like whispering, tapping, crinkling, and other gentle/quiet repetitive noises, or certain words. And a lot of people are making videos, on YouTube, specifically designed to activate people’s ASMR response.
Then there’s the ASMR tingling, which is probably the weirdest part of it, or at least the weirdest thing for someone who “gets” it to try to describe to someone who doesn’t. (“What do you mean you get ‘tingles’ down the back of your head!?”)
Maria of the YouTube account GentleWhispering, and probably the best-known ASMRtist, demonstrates (while also explaining):
Or, to transcribe what she says: “The tingling sensation is euphoric — it starts in the back of your head, travels down through your spine [and] into your limbs, relaxing you [and] giving you a feeling of well-being. We believe that everyone has the ability to experience it, it’s simply a matter of finding the trigger that speaks to you. Thankfully, in the ASMR world, the choices are endless.” (Do you suspect that the sound of someone slowly turning papers might relax you? Or maybe someone tapping lightly on the microphone, or pretending to examine your ears or clean up some cuts on your face? It’s all out there, and then much more beyond that, too. It feels sometimes like a sensory Wild West!)
For me, the ASMR tingle is a one- to five-second experience that happens when I wear headphones and listen to whispered speaking that seems to be right up against my ear. It’s a physical sensation that starts from my ear and runs or shoots down the back of my neck, almost as if starry, magical hair were running down the back of my neck before dissolving completely at my shoulder blades. It’s not always a pleasant experience — sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s kind of distracting or neutral. It’s not why I seek out the ASMR videos, though — I seek them out because they put me to sleep.
I first tried listening to ASMR videos at a low and sleepless point in my life, when I was spending hours wide awake in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. Nights of this were turning into weeks, and I felt increasingly out of control. I’d read about ASMR before, but I didn’t want to think of myself as weird or desperate enough to need a simulated human exchange to soothe me to sleep.
But, then I did, and I was, and so I tried it.
At the time, I only knew of one ASMR video (and it’s still one of the most-watched ones on YouTube, with 18 million hits):
So I put headphones on and watched it, and as I watched it, my thought progression went something like: “This is incredibly weird, what is she doing and why is she doing this? Is this a sexual thing? Why does this have so many views? Who is watching this?? It’s depressing if this is what people need in order to—” and then my next thought was waking up the next morning, feeling rested. (More or less.)
The videos then became a regular part of my nightly routine, and have been, on and off, ever since. They’re also becoming part of my daytime routine, too — I’ll occasionally leave one on in the background while I’m working, as a sort of low-key constant soother. (Although as I listen more during the day, I’m listening less frequently at night — which feels like a nice balance and keeps ASMR videos from feeling like a drug I’m starting to take around the clock. At least not yet.)
There’s also something about the acquiescence involved in ASMR that I haven’t quite figured out, for myself at least — the way that it can feel easier to fully relax around someone who’s not actually there, and to submit to their ministrations in part because they’re not really “real.” It’s like a safer but more distant version of a lover, or a mother. But the flip side of this is that I also feel a real and intimate connection to some of these ASMRtists, as strange as it sounds and despite the fact that they’ll likely never know who I am. But I don’t normally let people in on such a private moment of my daily, real life — falling asleep — and I therefore feel attached them in a way that’s hard to explain.
I should also say that ASMR videos are like different types of fruit — if you try the wrong fruit at first, you might be put off the whole food group. But if you find a flavor or two that you like, it can change your entire eating (and sleeping) habits — hopefully for the better. Here are a few of my favorites:
Also Emma of WhispersredASMR’s “Relaxing Hair Brushing” and “Sleepy ASMR Head Massage by the Fire.” I’ve probably listened to both of those at least 50 times. (And her channel is my overall favorite.)
While writing this post, I came across a whole new subset of ASMR videos that I’m really enjoying: pet-themed ones. Here’s my current favorite:
Anyway, something to keep in mind if you’re ever lying awake at night…