A woman with flawless makeup and shining nails sits close to the camera. She smiles, and begins to speak, so softly it might as well be a whisper:
"Hello. My name is Maria, and I'm here to tell you about ASMR." The woman speaks with the slightest accent, piquing my interest while remaining subtle and nonthreatening. She leans into each ear as she spells out the acronym, "Autonomous. Sensory. Meridian. Response", sending shivers down the sides of my neck and shoulders. It's borderline uncomfortable, but her slow cadence and gentle hand movements soon lull me into a state of relaxation, even in the middle of a crowded Starbucks.
She goes on to describe how the pleasant, tingling feeling can be triggered by "unique soft voices" or the soothing sound of her manicured nails on the wooden handle of a hairbrush. The binaural audio feels like a phantom touch -- not of a sexual nature, but intimate nonetheless. This isn't hypnotism or a sexual fetish, but at times it uses elements from both.
ASMR is a phenomenon that has only really garnered public attention over the past few years. Many current college and high school students already have a vague awareness of the whisper-video culture, just through sheer exposure to the lesser-known niches of the Internet. Most of those from an older generation have been completely befuddled when shown an ASMR video, but can still immediately grasp what has made it so popular.
While ASMR itself is the pleasurable tingling sensation that can spread throughout the body in response to certain audiovisual triggers, the term is also used to encompass the wide variety of videos that serve as said triggers, from an instructive video on painting Japanese lacquerware to a roleplay scenario in a doctor's office. The possibilities for triggers, as well as the range of physical and mental reactions, are endless! Some videos shared on the ASMR subreddit, such as a recording of a baritoned college professor giving a lecture in Russian, are classified as "unintentional ASMR". Some people I've interviewed actually find most intentional ASMR unappealing because "If it’s not authentic, you don’t get the payoff."
The tingling itself can range from a calmness of the mind to physical little tingles running across the scalp to full-body, orgasmic tingles. "Tingle burnout" after regular viewing of ASMR stimuli is a common occurrence, which can be fixed by abstaining from watching such videos for several days. People who make a habit of consuming ASMR do it to clear the head after a stressful day, to reset one's focus, or, like one Wellesley student I talked to, "I used to just use it every once in a while when I couldn’t sleep, and eventually I started using it more and more and now basically use it every night." Others indulge in it for the feeling of intimacy it nurtures between the performer and the viewer, even if the compassion seems one-sided or surface-level.
Many readers may already be aware of ASMR and its wide range of effects, so the question I posit now is: is ASMR a form of intimacy?
What is intimacy? We used to think it was something like lying next to another person in the same bed, but then long-distance relationships became more and more commonplace because of -- you guessed it -- technology. Words on a screen took the place of illicit meetings; secrets, minute-by-minute feelings, and even heartbeats are exchanged in an attempt to recreate (or substitute) what is normally communicated with body language and touch. People who live on opposite sides of the globe can know more about each other than their own families. Private Snaps and 12-hour FaceTime calls are considered intimate, a marker of dedication and interest in another's well-being.
Is ASMR the next step in the evolution of meditative practice, or a precursor to a "Her"-esque world where we fall in love with a performer, satisfying sounds, or a bodiless voice? Are we growing closer to others via technology, or closer to the technology itself? I'll leave that one for you to ponder.