Sunday, 8 September 2013

Heather Feather and the bizarre pull of ASMR

The other night I discovered a particularly strange corner of the internet. Picture this: a young, attractive but overwhelmingly sweet woman stares into the camera. It's a close-up shot so her eyes are mesmerising and you can stare in a way that would be too intimate if she were looking at you in real life. Her eyes are outlined with black eyeliner and they ooze a fresh kind of sincerity and concern for you. They indicate that you are the primary focus of her attention. She begins to speak in a whisper. All you hear are the intimate sounds of lips parting, of delicate words being carefully formed. You get the feeling that this woman thinks before she speaks and that what she is saying is meant especially for you. What she is whispering to you are little known facts about animals. The video is at least half an hour long (you can watch Heather Feather in action here).

Another video is set up like an interior design consultation where the young woman, dressed in a nondescript business suit, speaks gently and sincerely about flooring, curtaining and wall colours. She then shows you laminate flooring samples and clicks her manicured nails across their textured surfaces in a way that is bizarrely pleasant. This video goes on for an hour and 15 minutes (you can watch it here).

Welcome to the strange world of ASMR.

Know your defines ASMR as "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) [and] is a term used to describe a sensory experience characterised by a pleasant tingling sensation in the head and scalp, which can be triggered by sounds like whispering or brushing, and visual stimulus like painting or drawing. On YouTube, the phenomenon inspired the creation of 'whisperer' videos, in which people attempt to trigger the viewer's ASMR by speaking in a soft voice and making various sounds with inanimate objects." It has alternatively been called brain orgasm, brain massage, head tingles, to name just a few.

When I was in first year of university I took a Sociology course called Introduction to Human Sexuality. More than the content, what stayed with me was the idea that absolutely anything could be studied and learned about. Coming out of a rather restrictive school syllabus, this was mind-blowing to me at the time and has gone on to feed a curiosity about understanding the idiosyncrasies and trends that make up our social world (or virtual world in this case).

There isn't much research on ASMR, but while there is no scientific explanation for the experience, there is something undeniable about its effects. People claim it helps them deal with stress, anxiety and insomnia. On ASMR Hub, a site dedicated to all things ASMR, you can search for videos based on preferences such as voice level, accent, different types of role play and sound triggers such as clicking, page turning, rustling etc. These things make you  wonder what neurological and psychological process are going on to produce a pleasure response.

And yes, it's kind of creepy and one can't help noticing the parallels between the online searching for triggers that elicit a physical response and porn. The thing is, it's not porn, but it's hard to know what to call it. The common theme is a young woman (usually) paying special attention to the viewer through a variety of mundane role playing scenarios ranging from ear-to-ear whispering to having your hair cut at the hairdresser. Their gentleness and concern and focus are intoxicating and the soft-spoken whispering implies not only favourable aspects of character, but a kind of physical intimacy too.

The internet is a strange and very diverse place. The rising popularity of internet searches for ASMR (according to Google) is probably also an indicator of unfulfilled searches for gentleness,calm and personal attention in the real world.


  1. Whoa! What a surprise! Thank you for covering ASMR as a topic, and mentioning me! I think as more and more people realize they have ASMR, it will become a much easier thing for people to relate to. Some people get bad chills when they hear certain sounds (like nails on a chalkboard), some people get chills of exhilaration when they hear certain music (Frisson)---ASMR is like getting AWESOME chills that can also make you sleepy when hearing certain sounds or seeing certain visuals. I think it's awesome that more and more people are talking about it, and I am honored to be part of your discussion.

  2. Hi Heather,
    Thanks for visiting my blog! When I stumbled across ASMR on the net I was quite fascinated and wanted to find out more. You definitely seem to have got it right when it comes to inducing the tingles! Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Nice one Nicole! Now that you have examined ASMR, my next suggestion is for you to explore the bizarre world of online hypnosis videos. You want to do this, you are very relaxed, just reading this is making you very sleepy...
    PS love your work Heather!

  4. Thanks James....hmm, think you have to work on your blog comment hypnosis technique a bit more =)



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