SXSW 2016
The week of March 6, 2016

The wild world of getting paid to whisper

By Selena Larson

It feels like someone is dragging her nails gently from the top of my spine to the crown of my head, as goosebumps appear on my arms and my lips automatically slide into a soft smile.

If you get it, you get it—and if not, well, it’s still pretty fascinating.

The sensation is widely known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), though there’s no scientific name for it. The phenomenon remains almost wholly unstudied, yet has inspired massive communities that thrive on YouTube and Reddit.

I first discovered ASMR through Twitter the same day this story was assigned, when my editor at the time, Taylor Hatmaker, shared a 10-hour video of so-called ASMR “triggers” with more than 1.4 million views. I started watching it and immediately felt a sensation that was pleasant and familiar but almost impossible to describe.

She pointed me to a This American Life episode and a flourishing online community of people who feel the same sensations when presented with a consistent set of sounds and imagery.

Maria, an ASMR artist who asked to be identified only by her first name and YouTube channel, makes videos for people who are ASMR-sensitive simply because she wants to help people feel good. Those who are ASMR-sensitive report feeling relief from anxiety, insomnia, and even depression when they listen to the videos.

Maria discovered ASMR in 2009, much in the way I did—by accidentally stumbling across the community. Maria told me the first time she experienced the physical sensation of sound and touch was when she was 6 or 7 years old during a student-teacher role-playing game with a friend. Her friend’s voice moved something within Maria, and she never forgot the sensation of the girl’s whisper and inflection, how she licked her finger, flipped a page, and tapped on the maps gently in a geography book.

Much later in her life, while going through a personal struggle with anxiety, Maria found that watching YouTube videos of massages and meditation helped her relax when little else could. It was only by accident she discovered the “whisper community.” Back then, it didn’t yet have the unscientific yet widely accepted acronym it goes by now. Still, thousands of people like her were using videos depicting a set of similar scenes to calm down and feel centered.

“Most of the time people find their community when they’re struggling with something,” she said in an interview with the Kernel. “It’s something that we all share—the search for a peaceful spot to chill at and not [make] much effort.”

With almost 500,000 subscribers, GentleWhispering, Maria’s channel, is among the most popular ASMR YouTube channels. Recently Maria, 29, found her channel became so well-trafficked she was able to quit her job at a medical supply store to focus on ASMR stimulation full-time.

“I have a big problem with speaking about this as a job, because it has never been a job and it still is not. I’m grateful that it supports me financially,” Maria said. “I really come from the place of inspiration. If I’m not inspired, I won’t make any videos at all, even if it will damage my earnings somehow. The past month I’ve been going through a lot and I don’t want to make videos.”

For the past four years, Maria whispered in English and Russian, role-played different scenarios in which someone might feel relaxed (like at a therapist’s office), and made stimulating noises through taps, brush strokes, scalp massages, or other common triggers to help bring ASMR to mainstream audiences.

As more people watch Maria, she’s been able to turn up her video production value. Thanks to what she’s earned via YouTube, she built her own makeshift recording studio in her Maryland apartment, complete with expensive microphones and additional props to generate sounds that evoke relaxation among her viewers. Maria says she doesn’t accept sponsorships because inspiration can’t be scheduled, but she does post links for PayPal donations. After a particularly good video, she usually sees a spike in viewer-donated funds.

She may have a successful whisper kingdom, but Maria and her fellow ASMR video creators want to make people feel an even deeper connection to one another. To that end, Pixel Whipt, a production company founded by Maria, Ally (ASMRrequests), and Heather (HeatherFeatherASMR) will start whispering in virtual reality.

Filmmakers outside of the ASMR realm are already using VR to generate empathy in viewers, drawing on the psychological responses to scenarios that we otherwise would never experience firsthand. The idea is that VR might further heighten the hypersensitivity of ASMR video viewers, transporting them to an immersive, surreal world full of light, tapping, and whispers.

“We’re really hoping to take ASMR to the next level and take it into the virtual reality world,” Maria said. “And possibly as the tech grows and becomes available for everyone, we can actually make it into a new art form.”

The first set of videos, “The K3YS,” is a somewhat magical and inspirational trio of short films featuring the three ASMR YouTube superstars. They dress up in dark cloaks and put different objects into wooden trunks, speaking softly and directly to the audience. The player or viewer is on a journey and visited by three powers: time, courage, and wisdom. Role-playing is relatively common within the ASMR community, but by turning it into a sort of game, viewers can engage with it even more.

Completely immersive, 360-degree ASMR videos require much more effort to make, so the women have only created three so far. Maria says VR films take months to produce, because they require adding more special effects, a different way of filming, and more work in post-production.

“We still stay true to the ASMR concept itself which is being very soft-spoken, very clear energy, very positive vibes, very personal and comforting,” she said of VR production. “But at the same time, we take them and immerse them into a scenario that could possibly create a new emotion in them. We’re trying to bring different experiences to everyone.”

The major difference between standard ASMR stimulation videos and Pixel Whipt’s productions is that there will be opportunities for people to interact with the film itself. Like many other VR videos, they allow two-way engagement—people already feeling stimulated will be able to reach out and touch something, or move their head around the room and never lose sight of the stimuli that gives rise to their sensations.

“That’s one of the best things that you can witness more is to truly try and connect the outside world, not just my little room, and give you a 360-experience where you can look around and can interact with things around you. But I’m still there as well,” Maria said. “The potential is just amazing.”

Psychologists have recently tried to decipher what makes certain people react intensely to triggers like whispering, personal attention, tapping, and crinkling. So far, only one peer-reviewed study on ASMR has been published in a scientific publication. The phenomenon is so new, researchers often wonder about its authenticity. Dr. Craig Richard, ASMR researcher and professor at the department of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, said even he was skeptical when he first heard the term. Now, he runs ASMR University, a website encouraging research and education about ASMR.

In a Swansea University study of 475 people self-selected from online ASMR groups, researchers found that there was a significant correlation between watching and listening to stimuli and an improvement on mood, anxiety, and even pain.

The results of this study suggest that ASMR also provides temporary relief in mood for those suffering from depression, with many individuals consciously using it for this purpose. Individuals whose scores on the BDI suggested moderate to severe depression reported a significantly more uplifting effect of engaging in ASMR than those without depression. Those suffering from symptoms of chronic pain also benefitted from ASMR, seeing a significant reduction in their discomfort for several hours following an ASMR session.

While we don’t know what causes it quite yet, Richard has a theory. In an ongoing survey of over 13,000 ASMR-sensitive people from 90 countries, Richard is discovering the same patterns: ASMR is helping people feel less stressed, fall asleep easier and faster, and even assisting people with clinical disorders like anxiety, insomnia, and depression.

“All these stimuli seem to be recorded by the brain as pattern recognition,” he told the Kernel. “Whether you’re a baby, a child, or adult. The pattern that these people are doing with their voices, their movements, with gazing at you softly; they’re communicating to you that they’re safe, here to help, and they care about you.”

Richard said that of all the potential neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the process, one of the central ones is oxytocin, an hormone that plays an important role in intimacy, anxiety, birth, and social recognition. It’s also a hormone that drives orgasms, which is why some people equate the sensation of ASMR to the after-sex feeling. Oxytocin may act as a neurotransmitter that, when activated, in turn prompts the deep relaxation that characterizes the ASMR experience, though no research backs this up quite yet. Still, most people who experience ASMR would argue that it is not a sexual experience at all.

“The biology underlying that could be something as basic as these individuals experiencing ASMR are producing more oxytocin than other people, or the receptors they have are more sensitive,” Richard said.

s4Similar to the way people who have depression often have lower levels of serotonin and those who get Parkinson’s disease have a dopamine deficiency, these genetic mutations or polymorphisms in our bodies may make us feel hypersensitive to stimuli like touch or sound.

Richard said that VR could lead to some stronger ASMR experiences because it makes the stimuli more realistic, tricking your brain into thinking you’re being comforted even more than when viewing YouTube videos of whispers or tapping.

“When you just watch a YouTube video, your brain is tricked. Your brain thinks there’s someone in front of you that cares for you; even though you consciously know there’s no one in front of you and that person’s a stranger, your brain is tricked because they’re doing the patterns,” he said. “So if you can make that stimulus even more realistic, your brain is going to be tricked even more so. The more it’s tricked, it should result in an even greater ASMR response.”

If ASMR is in fact the result of a genetic mutation, Richard said, then people who are sensitive may feel a heightened response in VR, while those who don’t won’t feel anything. But the other possibility is that people behind a computer monitor who are conscious of the fact that it’s not real could feel their brains triggered when faced with complete immersion.

“I would anticipate that virtual reality for ASMR is going to be a fantastic thing,” he said.

For Maria, giving other people that magical sensation is a personal and powerful thing, and the community returns the supportive energy she shares with the world. Contrary to other online communities that often inspire negative comments or hate speech among anonymous commenters, Maria said the ASMR community is mostly positive and peaceful. While there are the occasional trolls in the comments or communities, people are more empathetic, and even when people bring negativity to the community, there’s an understanding that they might just not quite get what’s going on. And that’s OK. A lot of the positive response and shrugging off bad feedback has to do with how people discover it in the first place. Like Maria, people tend to find it when they’re down.

“Once you enter the community, it helps you in some way,” she said. “You truly feel a great connection with other people and you feel much more compassionate to the people who just find the community when they might still be confused.”

Some of the confusion stems from the misunderstanding that ASMR stimulation is sexual in some way. When Maria first started putting her videos on YouTube, they were reported for adult content. A few are still flagged as inappropriate. The ASMR artists are frequently beautiful women “stimulating” strangers on the Internet through personal attention, and the phrase “head orgasm” to describe how it feels does little to help shrug the stereotype, although it is an accurate description of what someone experiences.

But according to the Swansea University study, just 5 percent of people reported watching ASMR for sexual stimulation. Instead, they use it to go to sleep, calm their nerves, and feel happier. Richard said there’s an increased concern in ASMR circles that people outside the community are more frequently interpreting it in a sexual way. As ASMR becomes more mainstream, people who don’t feel or understand the simulation automatically assume it’s got something to do with sex.

The misunderstanding is somewhat understandable.

“What is partially true there is you are probably getting some of the experiences associated around orgasm with ASMR—if you think of the time after orgasm, the post-resolution phase, you feel relaxed, you feel tingly ,” Richard said. “Chances are, what’s driving that are things like endorphins and oxytocin. With orgasm, especially after orgasm, there’s a huge release of oxytocin, and orgasm is known to actually bond people together.”

Given the oxytocin connection, people might be experiencing a chemical release paralleling a response achieved through sex without feeling sexual at all.

It took a few videos and a growing audience before Maria stopped getting flagged for sexualized content. ASMR artists are still battling that stereotype, however, and as they make films for virtual reality, that stereotype could be compounded, especially since pornography is one of the hottest markets for VR. But as research like Richard’s continues to study the science behind our tingly sensations, ASMR might be better understood to be a reaction in the brain, instead of other areas in our bodies.

While Maria makes videos for her growing community of supporters in need of bedtime relaxation or antianxiety tapping, she feels like the community is giving her something, too.

“It has definitely opened up a compassionate side of me that was not as big it was before I found the community five years ago,” she said. “I’m more patient with people. I don’t know where people are coming from, and by reading the messages from people, I truly get a bigger picture of the reality that everybody is struggling with something. If they found these videos during their hardest times, I’m so grateful for that if they find them helpful.”

 

A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on Sept. 18, 2015.

Illustration by Max Fleishman