I first discovered ASMR while in a strange corner of YouTube. I had just watched a 20-second video of seagulls and another 30-minute video chronicling the fertility struggles of a Florida couple named Kim and Tad, when YouTube suggested a video of a woman eating scrambled eggs. "They're perfect," she whispers while chewing loudly. "It's a long weekend." She takes a bite of crunchy toast. "Which I don't really need because I just started school." She clinks her fork on her plate. This goes on for 18 minutes.
A joke? A fetish video? Nope, it's just ASMR.
Maybe you've never heard of autonomous sensory meridian response, but it gets a fair share of bandwidth on YouTube: A quick search yields more than 6 million videos.
For some people, hearing certain noises, like tapping, whispering or chewing, triggers a tingling sensation of euphoria.
Think long nails tapping a wooden hairbrush, as seen in "Simple Pleasures" from YouTube user GentleWhispering, which has been viewed more than 8 million times.
Listening to someone unscrew a pickle jar isn't going to stop the Trump-ocalypse, but it might help you sleep better at night. It's not unlike ambient noise—which is popular in Portland, as Spotify's records show. The track Portland streamed disproportionately more than the rest of the country last year was a 90-second track from an album called 50 Shades of Ambience.
Maddy Evans has been using ASMR for the past five years to help her sleep. "I first felt the sensation of ASMR when I was about 6 years old," says Evans, a junior at the University of Oregon who makes her own ASMR videos. "I remember being with my friend in my house, and I was watching her pour the tea and grab everything and cut the finger sandwiches, and those concentrated, soft movements, and I could feel a tingling sensation in my arms and in my head." Evans says she first found ASMR videos after waking up from a nightmare five years ago, brought on by her PTSD. When she couldn't fall back asleep, she openedYouTube to find ocean sounds. Instead, she found a video called "Relaxing Makeup Artist Roleplay." "I woke up and realized I hadn't even made it five minutes into that video. I watched a couple more, and during one of her videos, I noticed that I was feeling that ASMR. I was getting those tingles in my scalp and spine," she says.
Dr. Karen Chenier, a psychology professor and at Portland State University and a LPC intern with a private practice, believes people are drawn to ASMR because of mirror neurons, which relate to empathy and are activated by watching other people. For example, if you see someone yawn, you may also yawn. Similarly, you can watch someone brush their hair and empathize with that soothing, relaxing feeling, she says. "Also, it links into your memory, as you watch the video, you may remember the time you got to bond with your mother, older sibling, girlfriend; a video of hair brushing could hook you into that past expereince. Mirror neurons can take us back to that early image even though we're not actually experiencing it," she says. Chenier says ASMR can be mind-altering, in a similar way to drugs, alcohol or running.
Evans says watching ASMR videos has significantly improved her life, and she frequently gets emails from people who are helped by her videos. "It seems weird to talk about, like I tap on things and read children's books out loud and upload it to YouTube—that's kind of a weird thing," she says. "But I get emails from people all the time saying it's the only way they can sleep at night. ASMR is a really big security blanket."
Chenier says she thinks ASMR can absolutely be used for people who are manageing high stress, or anxiety, and that it may be usful for more seriouse mental health issues such as PTSD. "To treat any trauma, we have to involve the whole body and the whole mind, so for the person suffering from PTSD, it is crutial that they learn to train their body to relax- it is something they have to cultivate. A cool thing about the videos on ASMR I have seen is that it may help some people to feel and get into their body," she says. "These experiences seem almost luminous to people, like, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't realize I'm almost drooling now. Though, good scientific research needs to be done to prove that ASMR is an effective evidenced based treatment."