If you come home to your partner passed out with an iPad still playing a Bob Ross tutorial, you may have some questions. Well, the Internet has answers. We’re talking about ASMR.
For the uninitiated, ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which refers to a set of very specific but varying sensations. According to ASMR University, the online authority and hub for all things ASMR, these feelings include “sparkly or static-y tingles or waves in the head which may flow to other areas of the body”; emotional responses range from “relaxation, comfort, calmness, sleepiness, peacefulness” to “happiness and/or euphoria.” It’s not unlike the chills you might get from a certain song (Billie Eilish is cited as a common ASMR culprit), or the chills that run down your body from a head scratcher.
Though deeply sensual, according to those who experience it, ASMR isn’t sexual. Come across an ASMR video unprepared, though, and you’d be forgiven for assuming you stumbled upon a niche version of soft porn. While your run-of-the-mill PornHub fare leaves nothing to the imagination, ASMR is full of whispering, stroking and intimate conversations. Think of it this way: ASMR is to porn what going to a Japanese girlfriend café is to hiring an escort.
That is to say, it is an innocent form of pleasure; some scientists believe it’s connected to the sense of satisfaction and social connection that primates derive from grooming. With a loneliness epidemic sweeping across the developed world, it’s not hard to imagine why videos of people with soft, gentle voices performing caring activities might suddenly be going viral.
Like so many of today’s cultural trends, ASMR owes its newfound visibility to the Internet. It all began in 2007, when a now-legendary discussion thread called “weird sensation feels good” bubbled up on steadyhealth.com.
This thread is the first cookie crumb of ASMR’s digital paper trail, but surely, what we now call ASMR has always been a part of the human experience. Only today, we have a word to define it.
In fact, a little digging through literature turns up some interesting evidence. Towards the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (around page 22 depending on the edition), there is a passage in which Septimus describes a nursemaid’s voice “which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke. A marvelous discovery indeed – that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees to life!”
In 2010, Jennifer Allen coined the term “ASMR” and started a Facebook group to foster discussion about the topic. The idea snowballed, and today, most major news outlets have run stories on ASMR, and ASMR-inducing YouTube channels have upwards of a million subscribers.
While these YouTube personalities put great time and effort into concocting spine-tingling content, some of the biggest ASMR stars were purely accidental. Take Bob Ross, a cult figure in the world of ASMR. The campy host of The Joy of Painting, a how-to PBS series that guided viewers through the process of painting gauzy landscapes from 1983 to 1994, is notorious for blissing out viewers with his gentle, positive directions and soft scratching of the canvas and palette.
ASMR aside, Bob Ross was already an Internet celebrity with a cult following. An animal lover and high school dropout who came up through the U.S. Air Force, Ross learned to paint during work breaks, and later, by watching German painter Bill Alexander’s TV show called The Magic of Oil Painting. Once he designed his distinctive teaching method, he traveled and taught, stirring up enough buzz to launch The Joy of Painting.
While viewers could learn to imitate his signature wet-on-wet oil painting technique, the real draw of The Joy of Painting was Bob Ross himself. His radiant positivity, wholesome, folksy speech, and of course, his signature perm, all conspired to make him unforgettable. As a self-taught media personality, his popularity reached far beyond the art world. Bob Ross remained a national treasure, even after his passing in 1995.
Some two decades later, Bob Ross is reaching a new generation through his accidental ASMR. The general consensus of the ASMR community goes that his videos are treasure troves of triggers like palette knife mixing to the whispery, aspirated way he says “white.” His notoriety is so established that ASMR University’s “What is ASMR?” page begins with this paragraph:
Have you ever felt tingles in your head and deeply relaxed while getting a haircut, listening to someone turn magazine pages, listening to a specific person talk in a gentle manner, or while watching Bob Ross create a painting?
By the laws of contemporary society, where there’s a Reddit trend stirring up headlines, there’s a coterie of contemporary artists busy contextualizing and decontextualizing the phenomenon. One such artist is Berlin-based Claire Tolan.
Since 2013, Tolan’s oeuvre has revolved around ASMR. Working in performance, recording, exhibition and even radio, she has collaborated with prominent artists like Holly Herndon, Inger Wolf Lund, and Camilla Steinum, using “the soft and mesmerizing sounds as equipment in sometimes sweet, sometimes sardonic, systems of soothing,” according to the artist’s bio on contemporary art agency Paloma Powers’ site.
In the summer of 2016, Tolan’s sound piece, Maybe it wants what it wanted inside out, premiered at Various Small Fires gallery in L.A., where it provided the centerpiece for an entire ASMR-themed workshop/symposium. Far from soothing, the piece responds to Euripides’ play Hekabe in light of Benjamin Bratton’s idea of “the accidental megastructure’ of The Stack”- or the ways in which we find mental and emotional stability by delineating the containers that enclose our selves, from our physical bodies to our rooms, houses and national borders.
Such eerie themes might seem like a far cry from the trivial, soothing nature of ASMR videos, but they actually highlight something essential to ASMR’s very DNA. Though ASMR is designed to be calming, inherent in its very purpose is the existence of a world that we need calming from. Such a world has always existed – war, politics and corruption are as old as human society – but the combination of advanced technology of destruction, an apocalyptic climate situation, and the immediate availability of disturbing information about all of the above push us over our mental and emotional edge on a daily basis.
Anxiety and overwhelm are the new normal, but ASMR can help. By establishing an intimate space between viewer and speaker, ASMR videos that focus on close personal attention might help us feel safe from a big, bad, scary world by enveloping us in a cozy digital cocoon.
Then again, leave it to artists and philosophers to make something deep and existential out of videos of towel folding. While scientists look into the biological and evolutionary roots of ASMR, critics and theorists are busy spinning their own webs of meaning. For example, in “ASMR and Absurdity” on the University of Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog, Hannah Maslen and Rebecca Roache make the argument that ASMR is inherently absurd – pointless and meaningless. If so, that puts it right in line with other contemporary cultural moments, up there with memes, slippers with real grass soles (you could just go outside?), agencies signing virtual models, and of course, slime.
Like slime, ASMR toes the line between a pop culture and a wellness movement. For those who experience ASMR, the purpose of watching these videos is relaxation, not entertainment. Like falling asleep to a mindless sitcom, ASMR fulfills our neurotic need to never be alone with ourselves. Still, it accomplishes more in the way of therapy than an episode of Friends.
Perhaps as a response to our collective craving for peace, or perhaps simply to keep up with the times, other wellness trends are seeping into the cracks in the art world’s sanity. Examples range far beyond ASMR – prominent museums host meditations; Canadian doctors now prescribe museum visits. Online, artists like Emma Allegretti (@allegrettiregretti) and Liana Finck (@lianafinck) open up about mental health with more candor than ever before, sharing their work in a diary-style format directly through social media.
But if art can help us voice our frustrations, it can also help provide a solution. While we can’t sketch away the impending doom of climate change, ASMRt videos can help us stay sane enough to work productively towards a solution. Art-making in itself is a therapeutic process, but for those of us without artistic sensibilities, “oddly satisfying” art videos can provide a similar effect.
Aimed at relaxing the viewer, these videos feature various artistic processes, from sketching to making slime. They work thanks to something called “visual congruency,” otherwise known as things lining up nicely. Think of it as the feeling you get when you toss a crumpled sticky note across the room and it lands perfectly in the bin.
According to Dr. Craig Richard, Professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences and founder and moderator of ASMR University, these “oddly satisfying” videos fall under the umbrella of ASMR; he calls them “observation-mediated.” While most of these videos are purposeful compilations designed to zonk you out in under 20, many how-to art videos are oddly satisfying without meaning to be, just as there is intentional and unintentional ASMR – think watching Marie Kondo fold sweaters for 17 minutes.
If all else fails, Bob Ross will always be there for us, offering a reliable vacation into a happy world populated by happy trees, abundant greenery, and, crucially, no human beings.
As for ASMRt, you can count on the wave growing.
ASMRt (noun) \ ā-es-em-ärt \
1. A recent phenomenon born from the convergence of ASMR, an elusive, blissful sensation that elicits deep relaxation through visual and auditory stimuli, and the art world. Bob Ross can be seen as the unwitting godfather of ASMRt.
2. Art related to or analysing the topic of ASMR.
3. Artistically inspired content designed to induce the sensation of ASMR.
ASMRtist (noun) \ ā-es-em-är-tist \
1. An individual who knowingly or unknowingly produces ASMRt.
2. A contemporary artist whose work addresses ASMR.
3. A content creator who makes ASMR-inducing content with artistic intentions.
Text by Katya Lopatko