“This dragon was a gift,” the woman whispers, staring intently into the camera, rubbing the crinkly belly of a purple stuffed dragon toy, first into one side of the 3D microphone, then the other. “I’m thinking of calling it donuts.” She seems to be smiling, but her face is so close to the camera, it’s tough to tell.
Are you asleep yet?
The video by Heather Feather, a highly popular autonomous sensory meridian response (#ASMR) artist, has been viewed more than 85,000 times, and it is one of almost 250 videos Heather has posted for her 300,000+ subscribers. And that pales in comparison to the following of some ASMRtists, like GentleWhispering, who has over 500,000 subscribers, whose videos have been viewed millions of times.
You’re probably wondering, “What the heck is ASMR?” So is everyone else who’s ever heard of it. VICE called it “the good feeling no one can explain.” Still generally classed as a pseudoscientific concept at best, those affected are tired of waiting for science to come around to understanding them.
The Reddit ASMR community wiki defines ASMR as, “a physical sensation characterized by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp.” While whispers, personal attention, “crisp” sounds a la Donut the Dragon, and slow movements top a recent list of effective stimuli, as you can see in Olivia Kissper’s video of 30 potential ASMR triggers, there are many more.
If the whole thing sounds a bit unlikely to you, you aren’t alone. Psychologists, neuroscientists and #sleep experts have yet to explain the experience in any meaningful way. In the absence of interest from the greater scientific community, those who experience ASMR have turned to each other to better understand the condition. On March 26, psychologists at Swansea University in the U.K., Emma L. Barratt and Nick J. Davis published the very first scientific paper on ASMR in PeerJ, an open-access scientific journal.
While their findings don’t do much to legitimize the existence of ASMR, they do serve to help disassociate the practice from its perception as a sexual predilection. Despite the themes of young, conventionally attractive women, often involved in some kind of service roleplay (doctors, nurses, dentists, etc.) only 5% of respondents to the survey claimed they used ASMR videos for sexual stimulation, compared to 82% who use them as a sleep aid and 98% for relaxation. The confusion is understandable, as the pleasure experienced during ASMR is often compared to orgasm. One common triggering tool is even called The Orgasmatron.
These headgasms, however, are more about sleep than sex. Unfortunately, until new research gives sleep experts a look into the physical responses these triggers cause, ASMR videos are unlikely to be suggested insomnia cures. That, of course, doesn’t mean they don’t work.
“Am I surprised that listening to an attractive woman talk about tin foil crinkling is helpful to some people? No,” says Dr. Christopher Winter, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and Medical Director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center. “ESPN Sports Center could advertise itself as a treatment for people who have difficulty falling asleep. Anything that takes your mind off the action of trying to fall asleep can be a pretty good treatment.”
The problem, Dr. Winter asserts, is the way we think about insomnia in the first place. “Insomnia is not the inability to sleep,” he explains. “It’s the inability to sleep when you want to sleep.” The tell-tale sign is panic. Like other tools people use to treat insomnia, such as white noise machines or reading by candlelight, Dr. Winters suspects that ASMR videos just help people get their minds off the pressure of falling asleep on a schedule. “To me, if it works, and it’s safe,” Winters says, “I’m all for that.” Just make sure the videos or other insomnia treatment you implement is an aid and not a crutch. If you find yourself in a WiFi free zone, will your lack of ASMR stimulation send you into a panic? Or can you find another way to lull yourself to sleep?
Dr. Winter’s words were convincing. The placebo effect is a tempting explanation in the face of so many believers. When my research started, I was an ASMR skeptic, but as wary as I am to admit it… just looking at an image of the “orgasmatron” makes me shudder with delight.