I didn’t realize that I experience ASMR — autonomous sensory meridian response — until a Stuff Mom Never Told You listener wrote in and suggested that Caroline and I podcast about it. Although I had never heard of ASMR before, I knew exactly what he was talking about: a pleasant tingling sensation (sometimes called a “brain orgasm”) that runs from the crown the head down the spine in response peculiar auditory stimuli, such as the crinkling of cellophane, the tinkle of tea being slowly poured into a cup, or the sound of a person speaking softly (“let’s paint happy tress” Bob Ross is an ASMR hero of sorts). Initially, I didn’t think ASMR was an appropriate Stuff Mom Never Told You topic until further reading revealed a compelling gendered angle to ASMR.
Now, ASMR isn’t a medically or scientifically recognized term, although some psychologists have acknowledged its possible validity. Some compare it to synesthesia, a previously unrecognized neurological phenomenon in which senses cross-communicate, for instance lending colors to sound. Without the Internet, the term ASMR probably wouldn’t exist, considering that a description of it first appeared on a message board in 2007, and in the six years since an ASMR online community has emerged, complete with its own vocabulary and a thriving YouTube culture. ASMR enthusiasts nicknamed evokers make “whispering” videos specifically engineered to trigger ASMR brain orgasms, and for people who’ve never experienced ASMR, they’re downright strange.
Typically, ASMR videos are made by younger women who pretend to be travel agents, hair stylists, nurses, and a host of other characters, who often reenact soothing scenarios in gentle tones. An ASMR article in VICE magazine, explains how popular YouTube whisper personality Maria “mostly speaks directly at the camera in her accented English, giving a Russian language lesson or pretending to be a physical therapist or just talking about her life or answering questions sent to her by her fans.” Despite the role-playing and the presence of attractive women getting up close and personal on 3-D microphones (for more realistic, omnidirectional sound), Maria and other ASMR enthusiasts emphasize that it isn’t a sexual fetish, but rather a lot of people watch ASMR videos to help them relax, soothe anxiety and combat insomnia.
Some also think there’s something inherently soothing about the female voice that elicits more ASMR reactions. Over at Slate, Mark O’Connell attributes this gendered aspect of the online ASMR community to early mother-child bonds:
The fact that most ASMR whisperers tend to be young women who speak in a very calm and reassuring way inevitably brings to mind idealized notions of infancy. There’s something about the typical ASMR video that seems to address itself to a desire to regain some prelapsarian state of mother-child unity.
Male ASMR evokers do exist, but they aren’t as welcome in the space as women. An ASMR blogger who goes by the screen name Heather Feathers says people tend to assume that men wouldn’t be effective at triggering ASMR due to that gendered concept of nurturing (which is odd considering how often Bob Ross is cited in ASMR circles):
Some people avoid their videos because they think hearing a man do a nurturing or personal attention role play will make them uncomfortable. The men have gender stereotypes they have to work against—not only from the people who watch their vids who turn around and say “I just can’t listen to a man do this”—but from the people who won’t even click their videos once they see the sex of the asmrtist. They also have ignorant assumptions that are made about them(because of the content they choose to make), that they have to learn to combat, ignore, or laugh off. Female content creators can tend to get lots of inappropriate comments, but the males are no strangers to it either; and sometimes the level of aggression is increased towards a male asmrtist.
I’m still curious about whether the self-reported ASMR population, which includes This American Life contributor Andrea Siegel, skews more female as well. One article in The Independent says it does, but didn’t cite the source, so I’m dubious. Until more rigorous research can fill ASMR details like this, I’m off to listen to Bob Ross paint some happy trees and hopefully make my scalp tingle.