Strange Sensations: as little as a decade ago, ASMR was largely dismissed as a figment of the imagination. Today, the term represents one of the largest movements to sweep the world wide web. As academic institutions seek to ‘sense-make’, creatives known as ‘ASMRtists’ are feeling their way into a cultural sensation that transcends language and geography.
ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is a modern term that describes an age-old response: perhaps euphoria or deep calm, sometimes a tingling in the body – instigated by somatosensory-stimulation. In recent years, an online audience of millions has emerged, dedicated to watching the work of designers and content creators who aim to trigger such reactions in their audiences. Hooked up to microphones, they amplify the every day: whispering, eating, tapping, touching and scraping their way to indescribable delight.
Like meditation or yoga, ASMR engages both body and mind. Shunning speedy efficiency, it harnesses a focused leisure. For ‘experiencers’, it offers a degree of insulation from a noisy, wandering world, providing reconnection to innate embodied instincts, over learned cerebral intelligentsia. Through sound and film, broadcast via platforms such as YouTube, Twitch and Instagram, works of ASMR make for close-looking, close-listening, and close-feeling.
ASMR has been reported to inject the internet with a softness, a kindness and an empathy. As a form of digital intimacy, it offers comfort on demand, standing against the feeling of isolation (welcome or unwelcome), that constant connectivity can breed. Anecdotally, ASMR is being used as a form of self-soothing; an anaesthesia against the effects of insomnia, stress and anxiety. This is a clue to its success, and its transcendental appeal.
Everyone has the capacity to perceive or experience ASMR, but responses vary between individuals. People are ‘triggered’ by a variety of stimuli, and report effects such as tingling sensations at the top of the scalp, down the back of the neck, spine and arms. Accompanying feelings could be relaxation, euphoria, or frisson – felt either intensely or gently; however some just enjoy the experience without feeling much at all.
ASMR is not to everyones taste, and ‘misophonia’ is the broad term used to describe a dislike of certain sounds such as breathing, yawning or chewing – emphasising that there is an art to it. The term, which literally means ‘hatred of sound’, was coined by audiologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff in 2003. A misophonic response to a sound is the opposite of ASMR.
“There is a sort of relationship, a mutual trust between the creator and the viewer. The ASMRtist holds your emotional state in their mind and hands, and by clicking on a video, you give them your trust – trust that they’re not going to suddenly start screaming after 30 minutes of whispering, that they’re only going to say nice things, even after you’ve fallen asleep.” – Julie Beck, The Emotional Labour of ASMR (The Atlantic 2016)
ASMR and Attention
In 2005, YouTube launched with the tagline ‘Broadcast Yourself’, offering video consumers the tools to become video producers. When the iPhone was unveiled in 2007, the handheld smartphone and its mirrored surface soon usurped the television set. We have been attentive to the screen since the television entered our homes in the mid 20th century, but recent years have seen it become a necessity of our every waking moment.
Today we tend to treat the blue light of the screen and its frictionless surface as an extension of ourselves. The smartphone represents a bridge between our senses and a realm of endless entertainment, conversation and information. Each of us is part of an economy of attention that encourages consumption, and which can in turn breed a sense of restlessness. The ASMR movement, which can be traced back to around 2009, builds on this reality. To many, it seeks to subvert this culture by providing a new form of stimulation. It meditates on a niche and fills this space with personal attention, available on demand.
ASMR and Design
Through touch, ASMRtists distil the character and qualities of ordinary objects into audio-visual experiences. As such, an ASMRtists toolbox contains an array of everyday household items + a human interface: brushes, pens, bottles, pots, torches, nails, combs, candles, and books. It can also include unusual materials that behave in unexpected ways, such as kinetic sand.
As the creative field around ASMR has matured, new genres have emerged from it, facilitated by the interaction between design and technology. Some content creators build small-scale studios for greater acoustic quality, while others use green backdrops for a more immersive role-play format. Binaural (2-channel) recording techniques have also been adopted by the community, made possible by microphones embedded in prosthetic human heads or ears.
ASMR and Empathy
An ASMR trigger can be more abstract than a simple sound or action. Technology is often targeted as the cause of isolation and division – yet it has simultaneously fostered kindness, connection, and positive affirmation. Such forms of digital intimacy contribute to a new emotional economy of care. As in real life, it often exchanges intimacy for trust, empathy for vulnerability, and comfort for commitment. Still, the notion of proximity between strangers exists outside of many of the social and material demands of the ‘real world’.
Although there is a difference between solitude and loneliness, just as there is between anxiety and an anxiety disorder, new structures of collective feeling – of which ASMR is a part – may be a response to largely silent epidemics around mental health and modern pressures. But online intimacies are often non-reciprocal, and commitment is not necessarily a form of self-care. If ASMR is filling a void, we must ask what really fuels such demand.
Does ASMR embody a solution to a problem that we don’t yet fully understand? Is it a response to an urgency of which we are not yet fully aware? A community is very real, a place of mutual understanding for producers and consumers alike. But sometimes, between the cracks of the comment threads, it’s all too easy to glimpse the people struggling to cope, and for whom activities such as ASMR offer only temporary reprieve.
In their work, designer Anny Wang and architect Tim Sönderström blend physical and digital space in order to create unexpected experiences: through one continuous vertical camera pan, as if on an elevator, House Without Rules (2017) takes you through the different floors of a house that bends the laws of physics; While in Synthetic Crops, artificial vegetables shake, shimmer, rustle and pop in ‘mind tickling’ ways.
Wang & Söderström make materials, textures, and objects behave in visually and viscerally unusual manners. Often playing with hyper-realism and an uncanny sense of unease, these works are both meditative and hypnotic. In recent years, the boundaries of what is considered to trigger ASMR have expanded to include ‘oddly satisfying’ optical pieces such as these.
In 2009, Jennifer L. Allen coined the term ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’ in order to allow people to collectively communicate some of the broad range of effects they were experiencing. This was one of the first official definitions of the movement. However it can be retrospectively applied to earlier works. For example, the American painting instructor Bob Ross has become known as the ‘godfather of ASMR’ despite having died in 1995.
An icon of pop culture, Bob Ross’ painting-style and personality on The Joy of Painting (1983-94) transported viewers into worlds of his imagination: landscapes, mountains and ‘wet-on-wet’ brushstroke techniques inspired by fellow television artist William Alexander. Ross’ calm demeanour and gentle tone of voice, alongside the settling sounds of painting, stippling and scratching, enchanted audiences in the US.
Since 2014, when episodes of The Joy of Painting were first streamed on Twitch and YouTube, a new wave of fans across the world found comfort in Ross’ naturally laid-back approach. This new audience is largely digitally native – born into a world where this sort of slow quietude imparts a foreign but distinct nostalgia. His post-mortem channel now has over 5 million subscribers and counting.
This is a form of unintentional ASMR, as the content was not originally created for this purpose, and passively produces these effects. Another example of this is the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, which many tune into purely for its reassuring predictability and calming effects, rather than the detailed content. Peter Jefferson, who has read out the Shipping Forecast’s weather and maritime traffic information for over 40 years, described its importance as such:
“The version of it broadcast last thing at night has been likened to a meditation, a mantra, a kind of lullaby, since for many people it’s not just rhythmic, familiar and soothing, but also the last thing they listen to right before falling asleep. People used to write to me saying how soothing they found it after a long day. They loved this familiarity and would say – I love it when you send me to sleep at night reading the ships.” – Extract from Jefferson’s interview with the meditation app Calm (2017)
Intentional ASMR on the other-hand, is triggered by personal attention and direct engagement. Tobias Bradford is a London-based, Swedish artist creating performative sculpture. His body of work plays with the relationship between the organic and inorganic, encompassing themes such as nervousness, and compulsions of the body. In That Feeling / Immeasurable Thirst (2021) – an artificial, disembodied, fleshy tongue dripping with synthetic saliva – plays with the idea that objects mimicking something we might think we know, can be viscerally convincing.
ASMRtists and their experiencers exist parasocially – a psychological relationship that takes place through mediated encounters between performer and participant. This means that although one might never meet the other in person, there is an affinity, and a transfer of sensation. That Feeling provokes feelings in a similar way: highlighting how a range of individual responses (such as arousal, disgust or fascination), can be triggered by inanimate objects. Whether or not it is pleasant, playful or simply uncanny is up to you. If you find yourself making fun of it, consider that it might be making fun of you…
Meridians Meet (2022) is a live-studio space created by London-based artist and researcher Julie Rose Bower. It’s an environment of heightened sensory experiences, inviting you to interact with a collection of tactile materials, microphones, and fellow visitors. Here you can explore the world of ASMR through 5 installations: the cave, a sandpit, the wishing well, a microphone with brushes, and a mountain range of cloth. You are welcomed into co-creating a living piece of research involving a variety of ASMR triggers, such as hand-claps, footsteps, fluid sounds, microphone-taps, and fabric brushing.
“The sound design of this performance invites you to nurture connections that may be experienced as tingles, calm, or perhaps some other somatic response. Your intimate impressions of these complex feelings is a canvas that only you yourself can fully know. Here you may take the opportunity to develop your sense of what ASMR is to you. But in this space, you can also call on the networks that link the ASMR online community, noted for its kindness and generosity. These sensual and technological networks – as well as its design techniques – are cross-pollinating offline in the present moment, and extend into the gallery. As you enter, you add your unique presence to that of others, in a space where we may physically meet.” – Julie Rose Bower
Julie’s practice encompasses performance, sound design, multimedia site-specific installation, and digital video, and has been exhibited in spaces such as the V&A and London Design Museums. Her work as an artist, sound designer and teacher focuses on the cross-modal and embodied qualities of sound, and specifically – the intersection of sound with movement and touch. She’s also a practice-based PhD candidate in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University London.
Another researcher and interaction designer is Marc Teyssier. In 2019 he published a project that took the internet by storm. Artificial Skin for Mobile Devices features hyper-realistic skin covers, some of which make a sound when you touch them. This silicone ‘skin’ was part of a research project on Skin-On Interfaces – looking at new ways to interact with everyday devices, creating a more ‘organic’ feeling… His imagination extends into stroking, pinching or squeezing your instagram feed one day.
Musicians have also waded into the waters – enhancing ASMR that can be triggered by positive affirmations and reassuring repetitions. Created as a collaboration between the experimental musician and sound artist Holly Herndon and the American artist and programmer Claire Tolan, Lonely At The Top from the album Platform (2015) is an audio role-play using these techniques. Tolan has been creating ASMR since 2013, and this is one of the first commercially released albums to include such a track.
These mesmerising and hypnotic patterns, sounds and movements are replicated by Gavin and Daniel of The Slow Mo Guys, who create unintentional ASMR using Phantom high-speed cameras to film (and slow down) every day objects. Similarly, in The Lost Art of Paste-Up, Bryony Dalefield shares a different frame of mind and an aesthetic, using her performance of intricate, delicate tasks. Having worked at The London Review of Books since the 1980s, she’s an expert in ‘paste-up’ – the art of preparing the pages of a magazine for print, which was used prior to computer-based desktop publishing. This bygone craft requires precise attention to detail, and was once central to every newspaper operation.
The growing popularity of ASMR means that advertisers and companies have been quick to capitalise on the format. IKEA’s ‘Back to School‘ bedroom range ‘shows students that their products can not only be functional, but also help them relax’, and Virgin Atlantic’s binaural video counterintuitively heightens every sound of their business class trips.
A fresh wave of technology has also arisen to meet demand, including the 3Dio, Neumann, and DPA sound companies specialising in binaural beats. The word ‘binaural’ means ‘to have two ears’ – with tracks and microphones designed to record two separate channels of resonance. The tunes are sculpted from multiple directions, making them sound more natural when captured and recorded. These bespoke binaural instruments have been used by immersive artists such as Chris Milk, who created a virtual-reality film called Hello Again, enabling viewers to experience a 360 degree cover-concert of Bowie’s Sound and Vision.
As more artists, advertisers, researchers and participants seek to engage, commoditise, study and experience this holistic phenomenon, it seems that the internet is forever blessed with outing our oddities. From ASMR cooking and amplified Mukbang, to binaural beats, tantalising triggers, and sleepy sensual soundscapes – why not let our latest technologies combine form and function: taking us on somatosensory journeys that are reassuringly predictable, unusual, stimulating, relaxing, and enigmatically embodied.