From hair-brushing to whispering, we go inside the world of ASMR.
A red-haired, doe-eyed woman is fluttering her lashes at the camera and whispering in a soft, buttery voice. “I saw that you were coming in tonight,” she says, smiling. “Do you mind if I perch on the side of your bed?”
Her name is Emma Smith – better known online as Whispers Red – and she has a following of 680,000 on YouTube. This video, where Smith simulates tucking the viewer into bed at a sleep clinic, has been watched by 1.5 million people and lasts for nine hours. Smith will tuck you in, leave the screen while you sleep and be there to wake you in the morning.
If you experience ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), the video may induce a tingling sensation that starts at the top of your head and cascades down your spine. You may slip into a trance-like focus and your eyes will become heavy. As she runs her hands around the side of the camera lens, goosebumps might dance across your cheek.
Smith is Britain’s best-known maker of ASMR videos. It’s her full-time job. But how did she get into it? And what does she actually do?
To someone who doesn’t experience the sensation, watching Smith perform can be disorientating. The ASMR triggers are, by most measures, strange. Soft voices, repetitive sounds, nurturing attention or watching someone perform a routine task – like brushing hair – can all work.
“It’s really difficult,” Smith says thoughtfully when asked to describe the sensation her work provokes. “How do you describe a feeling? Most of the time, I equate it to having your hair played with as a child. It’s soothing.”
Neurologists have ventured that it’s comparable to frisson, which is the term for the chills and euphoria we can get from listening to music. Yet while there is research proving the physiological response to ASMR, there is still very little understanding as to why this phenomenon occurs, and why some people are affected and not others. And for those who want to feel ASMR but don’t, unfortunately there’s no way you ever will – if the physiological response isn’t being triggered, there’s no way you can train your brain to make it happen.
Online, ASMR content has been around in its current form since 2010, when the term was coined on a Facebook group dedicated to discussing the sensation. The videos mostly feature a performer, sometimes called an ASMRtist (usually a woman), talking in a steady, hushed voice while using visual stimuli, like the hair brushing, to evoke comfort. There are also videos of anonymous hands carving bars of soap or rolling marbles across a table that are just as popular.
Despite the inclusion of whispering women, often in full make-up and gazing at the screen, ASMR isn’t sexual. Smith acknowledges some people may see her work that way, but dismisses the idea. “When you see a woman wearing lots of make-up, coming right up to the camera and maintaining eye contact, it’s usually in a sexual context,” she says. “But it can be nurturing and kind, too.”
Whatever the appeal, what was once an internet subculture is becoming mainstream.
Last year, W Magazine launched a series of ASMR videos featuring celebrities. In them, you can watch Jennifer Garner strum multicoloured beads between her fingers. “This,” she says, raising an eyebrow, “seems like really good ASMR content.” The video of rapper Cardi B, who is a fan of Smith’s, whispering her famous catchphrase “Okuuur” into a microphone has 16 million views.
It’s no surprise, then, that brands have been quick to jump on the trend. Last month, a Super Bowl beer advert, which was broadcast to 98 million people, featured Zoë Kravitz tapping her fingers on a glass beer bottle. “Let’s all experience something together,” she says playfully, cracking it open to an amplified fizz.
Paramore’s Hayley Williams recently used ASMR to promoted her hair dye brand Good Dye Young and Samsung is making a phone case designed to enhance sound recording, specifically to help make ASMR videos.
As it grows in popularity, so too has the research surrounding it. Last summer, Dr Giulia Peoria of Sheffield University conducted the first study into its physiological effects. Dr Peoria invited participants, half of whom reported experiencing ASMR and half of whom didn’t, to watch a mix of ASMR and non-ASMR videos. The study revealed that the heartbeats of those who experienced ASMR decreased by an average of 3.14 beats per minute while watching the videos.
“Even those who didn’t had some level of reduction in heart rate,” says Peoria, “which is consistent with the idea that it relaxes the body in a comparable way to music-induced stress reduction and mindfulness techniques.”
On a cold Tuesday in February, Smith is at her home in south London. National Rail have paid her to create a video for them. She will stand in front of her camera and softly whisper station names. She has the same mesmerising presence as she does on camera. Her voice is measured and she is as big on eye contact in real life as she is in the videos. She films them in a quaint, green shed at the bottom of her garden. Inside, there is a fully functioning studio, with lights, microphones, rolls of Colorama studio paper, but also incense, crystals and a sign that reads “Love HQ”.
Smith first came across ASMR in 2011, when she was in the grips of post-traumatic stress disorder after a car accident. “At the time, I was constantly reliving what had happened to me, but not processing it,” she says. “I was having panic attacks and was unable to concentrate. Day-to-day, I was functioning but I was completely disconnected from myself.”
Smith began searching for nature sounds to fall asleep to when she stumbled upon the ASMR YouTube channel The Water Whispers. As she listened to the performer Isle’s velvety voice, she realised she wanted in on this intimate world. “I started making videos just to be part of the community,” says Smith. “I just wanted to talk to people who experienced this feeling, too.”
Similarly, Sophie Michelle, a 22-year-old ASMRtist from Chester with over 300,000 subscribers, tells me that she first came across ASMR after her brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Michelle found herself home alone more often, stressed about exams and struggling to sleep. “I started watching make-up tutorials to relax when ASMR came up as a suggested video on YouTube,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone about it. It was my own haven of calm.” Michelle, who is a performing arts student, started making her own videos. She’s using the money she’s making, around £5,000 a month, to pay for university.
This sense of finding ASMR when you are at your most vulnerable is common. Comments on both Michelle and Smith’s videos frequently thank them for helping someone get through a tough day. Smith says people often cry when they meet her.
When I ask Hannah Lily Burton, a fan from Australia, what she likes about ASMR, she talks about a video of a woman chewing gum. “Everything around me melted away,” she says. “All my attention was focused on how calm and quiet the woman was. It allows me to ground myself in situations where I feel like I can’t.”
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
According to Dr Emma Bennett, who is researching ASMR content at Leeds University, role-play further enhances the sense of comfort. “The performer will often pretend to be a hairdresser, doctor or massage therapist,” she says.
“There’s this fiction that you are giving up your control. But, of course, you’re not, you can stop it. But it’s about submitting to this system of care that’s bigger than you,” she says. “In real life, if you purchase that kind of service it can be a little bit awkward. So you get to play at that without money changing hands. It’s this wonderful feeling that we’ve got one over on the system. You get the intimacy without the awkwardness.”
For some, the idea of being in on a secret is part of ASMR’s attraction. “One of the mistakes people make about ASMR is that it’s only really sincere in an embarrassing way, when in fact it’s pretty knowing,” says Bennett. “That, for me, is a key part of the intimacy. You know the secret. And it’s really weird to anyone who is not in on it, so that creates this odd sense of collusion with you and the performer. You’re both pretending.”
For those who don’t experience any sensation, watching ASMR videos is like listening to a language they don’t speak. But for those who are fluent, it’s a safe, comforting space where they find acceptance and calm. That they’re watching a stranger pretend to tuck them into bed or comb a pink wig is beside the point.
What does Smith hope her videos say to viewers? What’s the point of it all? “Well,” she says, “I’m telling them that they’re worthy of us spending time together.”