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Finding Tranquility, And Maybe Even Euphoria, On YouTube

(Masaaki Komori/Unsplash)
(Masaaki Komori/Unsplash)

I’m sitting at work, headphones on, feeling increasingly furtive and embarrassed as I watch a YouTube video of an attractive woman dressed like a doctor, pretending to administer a hearing exam. For 19 minutes, she displays the occasional medical instrument, pulls on latex gloves that crackle as she wiggles her fingers and softly murmurs in a sexy but soothing French-accented voice into the camera.

After that’s over, I watch a 26-minute video of a barely audible woman reading a Trader Joe’s circular in its entirety, her whispered voice following the direction a sharpened chopstick tapping lightly on each word as she utters it. Her reading device looks remarkably like a yad, the specialized pointer rabbis use when reading from the Torah — when she gets to the passage on uncured bratwurst, I just about lose it.

No, I am not watching soft core porn on company time. I’m conducting research into Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), a physical and psychological experience that’s become an online phenomenon. According to a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, something like 500 ASMR videos, just like these two, are uploaded to YouTube each day.

Devotees describe ASMR as a tingling sensation, like a mild electric current or the feel of champagne bubbles in your mouth. It starts in the scalp and radiates down the neck, shoulders and back, inducing a feeling of tranquility or mild euphoria. Late 18th century French authors would have referred to this sensation as a “frisson” — a quiet shudder or thrill. But while the feeling isn’t new, the methods of invoking it are oh-so 21st century. And perhaps, so too are the emotions driving millions of people to seek it out. It’s probably not a coincidence that ASMR’s popularity is skyrocketing now, as more Americans than ever report dealing with anxiety or depression.

For many, ASMR is triggered by auditory stimuli such as whispering, chewing, nails tapping on a hard surface, even the sound of a brush plowing through a thick head of hair. This is apparently why ASMR fans spend hours each day watching and listening to videos of people chiseling soapcarving and eating cheese, rubbing coarse hair curlers or mascara wands back and forth across a microphone or pouring seltzer into a tub of ice.

While these specific sounds leave me tingle-free, I certainly can appreciate how the patter of gentle rain, the crescendo and diminuendo of waves hitting the shore or the soulful cry of loons on a dusky lake can be meditative and calming. And I get the allure of some of the physical triggers to ASMR as well. Experiences like getting a haircut, a shoulder rub or a pedicure are so wonderfully relaxing because they offer tactile intimacy without sexual overtones. We feel cared for, but in a professional and asexual encounter that demands no reciprocity.

The ASMR online world is inhabited by hundreds of videos of this type of altruistic attention — simulated medical exams like the hearing test I watched at my desk, pretend applications of nail polish or make-up, feigned scalp massages — most administered by whispering, tea-slurping, cup-tapping, page-turning young women. They gaze directly into the camera, often in an extreme close-up, into the eyes of their anonymous viewers.

For some fans, these are undoubtedly a winking form of pornography. But for many, they are a cost-free form of therapy, easing symptoms of depression, chronic pain or anxiety. “I was in the middle of having an anxiety attack and your video literally helped me so much,” wrote one commenter on a role-play video showing a manicurist applying acrylic nails. At last count it had 889,203 views. “… i seriously can’t listen to many other asmrists because you are what makes me feel safe. i feel happy being part of this family and i feel like i can be myself here” wrote another.

Some ASMR fans are adults. Some are adolescents, including the one who wrote, “my parents are fighting and are getting a divorce your ASMR has helped me so much with sleep and my anxiety. During school sometimes I will listen to you to calm me down from a really loud class or annoying people that get in my personal space …”

I wonder — indeed, I worry — that the comfort these viewers derive is from the illusion of being seen and actively listened to.

Perhaps the ASMR videos of people impersonating aestheticians, doctors, masseuses, New York City police sketch artists and just plain friends are genuinely, physiologically soothing. But I wonder — indeed, I worry — that the comfort these viewers derive is from the illusion of being seen and actively listened to.

“[Video] Personalities tend to be people with really kind, caring dispositions,” enthuses Dr. Craig Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical science, in this New Yorker video about AMSR. “… You’re brought into this world, this moment with you and another person, and this person really seems to care about you.”

With all due respect to Dr. Richard, “seems” is perhaps the operative word. After all, these are broadcasts disguised as relationships. Regardless of ASMR purveyors’ motives — compassionate, mercenary or both — they are creating a commodity, and that product is a simulation of an interpersonal encounter. Indeed, some of these personalities make ASMR videos full time, earning thousands of dollars a month. It’s heartbreaking that these simulations make viewers “feel safe” and find “family.”

I don’t judge the anxious, overstimulated and possibly under-noticed people who find calm through these viral videos. But I can’t help but feel that in doing so, they are cuddling into the always-on, cacophonous, phony beast that’s jangling their neurons in the first place.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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