The ASMRtist at Work
Paul, more commonly known on the Internet as the ASMR artist “Ephemeral Rift,” attaches stands to two potatoes capped in tin foil. He makes sure they show up in the frame of the camera, delicately adjusting them until he’s satisfied. Hidden from view are the tools he’ll be using for that night’s video: a stiff brush, a balloon, giant latex monster hands. He peeks out of the room to double check that his wife and son are asleep before turning off the light and hitting record. “Hello,” he whispers to the camera. “I hope you’re doing well. Welcome to the world debut of potato microphones.”
ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is pretty much impossible to explain to someone who does not experience it. It’s often described as a tingling, staticky sensation felt mostly in the head and back area in response to specific stimuli, including whispering, crinkling sounds, and, now, the gentle brushing of potato microphones . Over the last few years ASMR’s popularity has exploded on YouTube; a quick search on the site brings up more than 6.5 million results. Ephemeral Rift’s own hour-long “Binaural Potato Microphones” video (tagged “VegTech ASMR”) boasts more than 1.2 million views, and other similar videos have reached around 9 million views. For a phenomenon that was completely undocumented less than a decade ago and still has no clinical explanation, ASMR has developed a bizarrely complex online community of people who are determined to both decipher and feed their need for sounds that feel good.
ASMR was first ‘discovered’ in 2007 on the Internet health forum ‘SteadyHealth,’ when a user posted about an intensely positive ‘sensation’ that they experience every so often, starting from when they were read stories as a child. They ended with: “I’m not complaining cause I love it, but I’m just wondering what it might be… help.” This sparked a six-page discussion of people with similar claims, which led to the birth of various Internet groups dedicated to further figuring out this mystery. The phenomenon went unnamed for years, floating around with names from ‘Attention Induced Euphoria’ to ‘head tingle’ to ‘brain orgasm,’ until the community finally adopted ‘ASMR’ in 2010.
In 2015, Emma Barratt and Nick Davis of Swansea University’s Department of Psychology published one of the very few existing peer-reviewed articles on the topic. Their study was based on the reports of around 500 people who both experienced the phenomenon and regularly watched ASMR videos. The paper suggests that ASMR could be a kind of “sound-emotion synaesthesia,” where instead of hearing a specific sound and, for instance, seeing the color purple, you would feel a tingling sensation. The possible link between ASMR and synaesthesia is what led to the study in the first place. “A housemate of mine brought it to my attention, actually,” Barratt says. “I have a real interest in synaesthesia, and when he heard about it he came to me to ask if they were related. I had no idea, but was super motivated to find out more.” The results of the study show that ASMR has been used for meditation, pain relief, and temporary help with depression and insomnia. But what about the actual cause of the sensation? “We just don’t know right now!” says Barratt. “At the moment, that’s really what we’re looking to build some solid theories on. A fairly recent paper suggested that there may be some differences in the brains of people who experience ASMR, though.”
Despite the many questions it leaves hanging, the one undeniable fact of Barratt and Davis’s study is the popularity of ASMR videos among those who experience it. ASMR artists on YouTube, known also as ‘“ASMRtists,” each provide a specific brand of triggers. These styles can be identified by browsing through titles of videos: “Dentist Roleplay,” “10 Hours of Tapping, Crinkle & Trigger Sounds — No Talking Just Sounds,” “Green Man & The Box o’ Tingles.” The videos tend to fall under three broad categories: whispering, acoustic, and personal attention roleplaying. While 19-year-old Taylor, or “ASMR Darling,” dabbles in all of these, she focuses mainly on the last type of trigger. ‘Personal attention’ in this sense is a combination of touch and sound, and is experienced when having your hair cut, nails painted, or back massaged. One of Taylor’s most popular videos consist of her giving a scalp massage, where she carefully brings out items (a brush, a towel) and uses them to make sounds near the mic while talking through her actions. The general content of her videos follows her personal preferences. “My favorite ASMR videos always have some kind of personal attention,” Taylor says. “Something about being pampered is just very relaxing and tingly.” According to Barratt and Davis’s study, personal attention triggers rank second in popularity only to whispering. People who are looking to recreate this feeling of relaxation tend to stumble upon videos of ASMRtists roleplaying these services and make a realization about themselves. “A few years ago, I was having such a hard time falling asleep for a couple of months. I wasn’t allowed to have sleeping medication, so I went to the internet for ways to sleep,” Taylor says. “A Youtube page popped up with an ASMR video. Being curious, I watched a few more, looked up the definition, and realized that I’ve always experienced ASMR.”
While personal attention may not be what Paul specializes in on his Ephemeral Rift channel, it’s his favorite type of trigger, too. “That’s what works for me in real life,” he says. “Whether it’s a customer service rep on the phone speaking in a pleasant voice, someone fixing something for me, the dentist… I’ve almost fallen asleep getting fillings.” Paul is known as one of the pioneers of online ASMR videos, and his content is a combination of whispering, interaction with objects, and a generous amount of absurdity. The “Tin Foil Hat Society” series is a fan favorite, in which Paul dons a tin foil hat, tie, and glasses and roleplays as an agent of the secret organization — all while whispering and finding ways to crinkle the foil, of course. He admits that his “idea of strange goes all the way out to Jupiter,” and it shows. Paul also seems to have a sizable number of costumes stashed away in his closet, which he pulls out for videos like “Relax with Satan” and reuses often over time. That’s not to say that all of his videos are . Videos like “Addiction Recovery Support Session” take a more serious tone, and reflect Davis and Barratt’s study of ASMR use for medical purposes. “We’re still at the tip of the iceberg as far as what ASMR can be used for,” Paul says. “Somehow it needs to transition from YouTube to real life, whether it’s in art or some alternative form of health practice. You just need the right folks to somehow explain it and use it properly.”