Have you ever stumbled across a YouTube video of someone whispering into a microphone while they tap on objects or pretend to give you a cranial nerve exam? That’s autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, and it’s being called “the biggest trend you’ve never heard of.” YouTube is full of niche videos: there are Sailor Moon makeup tutorials and speed runs through entire video games. But ASMR is suddenly drawing new interest from people outside of the community who want to understand the phenomenon and the artists behind it.

Emma, a UK based ASMRtist whose “WhispersRed ASMR” channel has nearly 49 million total views, says she started out as a viewer. “I started watching videos to help me sleep,” she explains. “I was struggling with sleeplessness because of PTSD,” a factor that led her to become more active in the community. She eventually began creating her own videos that were met with positive responses from other sufferers of insomnia and anxiety.

Pilcrow Sleepy Head
Sleep-1209288” by Unsplash—CC By 1.0

Emma’s videos have the same calming quality as children’s TV shows. With soft spoken voices and visually appealing objects being touched and handled, the audience is given as much of a tactile experience as you can get through a computer screen. Watch her paint mixing video, and you might assume she’s already a TV host or disciple of Bob Ross, despite her insistence that her day job is “pretty boring.”

Because ASMR has a niche following, it can be hard for outsiders to understand the motive for making these videos. Emma describes one incident where a woman stopped her on the street and covered her son’s ears before telling her she’d been watching her videos, and thought she was doing porn. Emma’s reaction to that was simple: “what kind of porn has she been watching?”

ASMR role play focuses on personal attention in non-sexual settings, like eye tests, hotel check-ins, and spa treatments, all experiences that can trigger ASMR responses in real life.

For Olivia Kissper, an ASMRtist with an MSc in transpersonal psychology, the frequent assumption that ASMR videos are sexual can be explained by a lack of experience with personal attention. “There are those people who don’t feel the tingles,” he says, “so you can imagine when they come across these videos they just can’t understand, and they immediately think it’s a sexual thing…a lot of people don’t have any experience with personal attention except in a sexual setting.”

Pilcrow Neon Brain
Neon Body Brain F” by Carolyn Speranza—CC BY 2.0

Role play is another element of ASMR that gets immediately associated with sex, and we’ve repeatedly seen characters in popular TV shows (Friends, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and Girls, to name a few) try role playing to spice up their sex lives. But kids role play all the time. So do adults who go to improv classes, Halloween parties, and Comic-Cons. ASMR role play focuses on personal attention in non-sexual settings, like eye tests, hotel check-ins, and spa treatments, all experiences that can trigger ASMR responses in real life.

On Emma’s channel, you might run into Barbara, the eccentric cockney woman inspired by a former neighbour, or the surprisingly realistic take on a bored and disgruntled Halloween shop owner. Reading through the comments, viewers are as attracted to the personalities as the sounds they make.

One of the most popular criticisms of the digital age is that being more technologically connected comes at the expense of making personal connections. From the restaurant sign that went viral for telling patrons “We do not have WiFi…talk to each other,” to the idea that meeting someone online is lazy dating, criticizing technology’s influence is becoming a fashionable talking point.

For people who suffer from anxiety or PTSD, inducing ASMR can be an instant mood stabilizer. But because it’s often triggered randomly, seeking ASMR in real life can be difficult. Olivia gets frequent feedback from viewers who say they turn to her ASMR videos when dealing with panic attacks, and is in the process of researching clinical applications for the phenomenon. She reveals that there may be a connection to EMDR, a style of psychotherapy where eye movement is used to help process traumatic memories, and is excited about the therapeutic possibilities. “We’re just trying to find out exactly what it is…the movement, the personal attention, because there’s so many factors and nobody’s really studying it in detail yet,” she says.

From trying to learn more about the science behind the feeling, to artists making videos about making ASMR, being open in the face of viral attention seems like the strategy most ASMRtists follow. “We just have to keep on doing it and showing people that kindness is a good thing and happiness is a good thing,” says Emma.

Aside from a life without tingles, what’s there to lose?