Her voice never registers above a whisper.
She stares at you with soft eyes.
Then slowly, she turns the pages of a book, tapping her fingers softly against the paper. The sound of her voice and fingers tapping is amplified by a microphone. “Want to count the stars?” she purrs, pointing to a page showing a luminous galaxy.
Meet “Maria,” perhaps the most famous ASMR artist on YouTube. More than a million people subscribe to her “Gentle Whispering ASMR” videos (youtube.com/GentleWhispering) created to help people relax with calming sounds and images believed to induce a tingling sensation in the brain.
Known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, this pseudoscientific term describes a physical and mental sensation that many claim to experience. Some with ASMR feel shivers up their spine or brain “goose bumps.” Others become drowsy and dazed.
Sounds such as whisper tones, tapping fingers and crinkling paper are the most common triggers. But other people get the tingles from watching someone do a repetitive task that becomes meditative. (This may explain why videos of barbers cutting hair or of someone ironing a shirt are popular among ASMR enthusiasts.)
Recently, this mysterious sensory experience has become trendy, producing a cottage industry of ASMR artists creating their own videos with audiences tuning in to relieve stress and sleeplessness.
Science has yet to explain why some people experience ASMR and others don’t. But there is growing interest from scientists in studying ASMR as a possible therapy for stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
While it may be hard to believe that anyone would want to watch a video of someone folding a stack of towels in order to rest better, sleep doctors say they’ve heard of stranger tactics.
“It’s odd, but odd things work for some people,” said Dr. Michael Howell, associate professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota and medical director of Fairview Sleep Services in Edina. “Would it be plausible that people who have this ASMR response could respond differently to these therapies for insomnia? Absolutely, yes, that’s plausible.”
Until there’s hard evidence, though, he said he wouldn’t recommend it for patients as a sleep aid.
The Bob Ross effect
Among those pushing for more research on ASMR is Craig Richard, who runs a website, ASMR University, that posts news articles about ASMR and interviews with researchers. Richard, a professor in the Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University in Virginia, says he feels the brain tingles with the right triggers.
“My head gets really fuzzy in an enjoyable way,” he said. “My entire body feels super-relaxed, and I’ll want to put my head down and take a nap.”
He has been fascinated with ASMR since he first learned about it through a podcast five years ago. He was skeptical at first, until the podcasters mentioned Bob Ross.
The late host of “The Joy of Painting” TV series had a baritone voice known to invoke maximum chill. Hearing it, Richard’s ears perked up. That voice, along with the tap-tap-tap sound of Ross’s paintbrush against the canvas creating his “happy little trees,” sent Richard straight to his own happy little place.
“I remembered coming home from school as a kid, flipping channels and stopping on Bob Ross because his voice was so magical,” he said. “I’d set up a big floor pillow and fall asleep halfway through. I don’t think I ever watched him finish a painting.”
Brain tingles are associated with relaxation, and Richard suggests that brain chemicals such as endorphins, oxytocin (the love hormone) and serotonin may be involved in the reaction to ASMR triggers.
Many ASMR videos posted online strive to create intimacy between the viewer and the ASMR artist. It’s that feeling of comfort, connectedness and being cared for that draws so many people in, Richard argued.
“The reason people are tuning into these videos is because they find them relaxing, which is helpful to their stress,” he said.
The “Joy of Painting” series is re-aired on TV periodically. Episodes also are avaible at the Bob Ross YouTube channel (bit.ly/1BxU8UA).
Rise of ASMR artists
For even more intimacy, a pair of New York artists have turned the ASMR experience into an immersive theater show. They call it ASMRtistry,
Melinda Lauw and Andrew Hoepfner offer what is believed to be the only in-person ASMR event, selling tickets to their interactive show. The 90-minute performance takes place in rented houses and apartments. Attendees are blindfolded and escorted into the homes, where the artists create sounds to stimulate the ASMR reaction in their guests.
It starts with a group presentation. Later the artists remove the blindfolds and escort each patron into a different room for a one-on-one experience. One scene, for example, involves a performer who will brush the patron’s hair while she tells them a story, speaking in a soft voice as a mother would to her child.
The show closes with blindfolds again. Performers lead the audience out of the home and release them into the world.
“The whole experience is very meditative and quiet,” Lauw said. “People come out of this experience feeling really peaceful.”
She has experienced ASMR since she was a child.
“I always knew I had it,” she said, remembering a particular childhood moment when she saw something that instantly relaxed her. “There was this little girl coloring on paper, and I remember loving that scene so much,” she said.