Ilse of thewaterwhispers

One of the top ASMR vloggers on YouTube, Ilse has been extremely prolific and gained a large following over her short time on the website.

Ilse Blansert rearranges her stick-straight brown hair so that it’s out of her face and puts on a couple of dabs of makeup to even her pale complexion out. Satisfied after checking her appearance in her webcam’s display, she gingerly attaches her binaural microphones to her blouse lapels, careful not to let her fingertips touch the sensitive inputs. She gauges the sound levels that the microphones are picking up with a nearly silent “Testing-one-two-three.” Then, a sphinx-like smile on her face, she begins to whisper.

Blansert, a Dutch student in her twenties, is speaking to no one in particular, nor is she saying anything revelatory. This time, she is showing off pieces from her jewelry collection—a silver bangle here, an intricate, thin glass butterfly necklace there—which hardly seems like something a complete stranger would wish to devote twenty minutes to hearing her stage-whisper about. Yet her YouTube videos get thousands of views (her channel has 32,000 subscribers at press time), as do those made by dozens of other video bloggers who also speak in a soft voice about mundane things. Where does the appeal come from? In a word: Tingles.

Blansert and her compatriots are part of a loose fraternity of people from around the world who have devoted themselves to setting off other people’s autonomous sensory meridian responses (ASMR). There are 1,920,000 videos tagged with “ASMR” on YouTube alone, up from a “mere” 500,000 last year. Eleven new videos are posted with this tag every hour on average. This dense term is a neologism, coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a freelance web designer and healthcare tech support engineer from upstate New York who now heads the nonprofit group ASMR Research and Support. It refers to a scientifically unexplained, pleasurable tingling sensation, that can occur anywhere in the body’s extremities but tends to happen in the head, face, scalp, and neck. Allen herself initially referred to it as “a feeling up my spine, as if I’d been injected with something that woke up every nerve ending” in the SteadyHealth forum post where she began posting about her experiences with it online. Four years ago, no one had heard of this sensation. Of course, people have probably felt it for a long time, and SteadyHealth users had sporadically posted about it under a variety of terms before Allen came along, but it was never widely discussed until Allen started a Facebook page for people who reported feeling brain tingles, using the acronym ASMR for the first time. Since then, interest in it online has exploded – witness those YouTube statistics that attest to a 300 percent growth in the number of ASMR videos in a single year.

“Long before I knew what ASMR was, when I was maybe five years old, I got a feeling of brain tingles when my grandmother used to softly touch my hand and sing lullabies to me,” Blansert relates, and her story is not atypical. Every ASMR vlogger says they experience the feeling, and their narratives usually begin in their childhoods. Some kind of gentle, non-threatening stimulus made their brains buzz a little, and though the feeling relaxed and soothed them even when they were troubled, they assumed everyone felt such things, or simply got used to it and put it out of their minds.

In a pre-Internet era, people with such a quirk might have kept it to themselves and enjoyed it privately. If they were curious or concerned, they may have discussed it with a doctor, who likely would have conceded that it was unidentifiable but harmless. But this is the age of overshare, and a happy consequence of a generation of people documenting their lives online is that these people can always find like-minded individuals, no matter how isolated. In the past, ASMR would have made people like Blansert minor eccentrics, completely normal civilians who happen to get their jollies in a way that most can’t access. Today, it—coupled with a talent for setting it off, and good old-fashioned charisma—makes them famous.

Defining ASMR poses a challenge, simply because everyone who gets the feeling seems to be set off by something different. These ASMR triggers, as they’re called, are typically sights or sounds—the S for sensory in that acronym. The commonalities between the thousands of people who report experiencing ASMR lie in their descriptions of how the tingles feel—always almost identical, with perhaps differences in intensity—and the general types of things that set them off. As one user, who identified himself only as Nick, posted on a Yahoo forum, “I have the EXACT sensation you guys have, it starts at the back of my head and travels down at a pleasant rate through my torso…all i can describe it as is ‘pleasureable electricity’.” According to an informal poll conducted by Andrew MacMuiris, a freelance writer whose blog The Unnamed Feeling was one of the earliest websites devoted to explaining ASMR,  76 percent of his readers reported sound as the primary trigger of their ASMR, 10 percent reported touch, 8 percent sight, 3 percent a different or sixth sense, and 1 percent needed no external stimuli.

“My impression of the vloggers I spoke to was that they were generally shy about revealing details about their personal lives, as being that into ASMR is sort of embarrassing for some,” said Harry Cheadle, a Vice Magazine contributor who has written about ASMR, in an email interview. “But they are very friendly, support each other, and are excited about their videos becoming more mainstream.”

“It’s common to call ASMR vloggers whisperers even when they don’t actually literally whisper, but I have a vested interest in calling them that, because my theory has to do with intimacy,” said NYU musicologist Joshua Hudelson in an interview. In Hudelson’s research on ASMR culture, he found that the neurological origins of the phenomenon may be “less important than the social or psychological part of it.”

“The best whisperers have the talent of appearing personable, coming off as a friend to everyone, and giving the simple pleasure of a shared secret.  Watching a whisper video is a kind of safe, no-strings-attached moment of interpersonal connection. There’s no risk of being judged since it’s a one-way conversation and the whisperer can’t see you, but it still feels like togetherness. And somehow instinctively we know to feel safe and relaxed by that.”

ASMR blogging is still a nascent industry, and the people who have taken it up are still a drop in the YouTube ocean, but it grows and grows by the day. Of the millions of ASMR videos, many of them are uploads of relaxing music, or scenes from films and television shows with whispering dialogue. Even the notoriously acerbic chef Gordon Ramsay whispering in a server’s ear activates some users’ tingles. All told, there are about five hundred ASMR vloggers who post original content with their own voices. Most of the people discussing their brain tingles online seem to be around Blansert’s age, in college or just out of it, having grown up using the Internet. They are used to sharing their unusual feelings with strangers under an alias, and they have grown into self-aware young adults, seeking clarity in their lives. The ASMR community provides a point of commonality for them, a shared quest for knowledge about what makes their brains different.

The top ASMR vloggers enjoy not only fame born of an insular and loyal fanbase, but fortune as well. YouTube offers revenue-sharing contracts to its members who produce the original content that gets the most views, and both Blansert of thewaterwhispers and Maria (who prefers not to use her last name) of gentlewhispering, an ASMR channel with 87,000 subscribers, have earned such contracts. In return for the promise of continual high viewer numbers and videos posted on a regular basis, YouTube gives these individuals a percentage of the money it earns from the ads on their videos, for no extra effort than they were putting in before. As Maria posted on howtomakeonline.org, a website that offers tips on earning money on the Internet, “If you have a family to feed [making ASMR videos] is a good way to earn something while you are helping others do it! The ONLY reason I had to turn on the ads on my videos was because I got a huge debt after my divorce and I literally would be living on the street today if not the earnings from here.” Blansert, meanwhile, has discussed moving to Canada with her fiance (who is also a whisperer) and purchasing a real recording studio with the bounty of her YouTube earnings in postings on her channel’s discussion board.

Those who get brain tingles swear up and down by their benefits for overall wellbeing. The occasional feeling of good vibes from within is a natural way to keep a good mood going throughout the day, of course, but sufferers of depression, social anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other mental disorders who experience ASMR say that the tingles have alleviated their symptoms without the need of medication. There are a fistful of crackpots who make rather more outrageous claims, such as healing physical wounds via ASMR, but the people whose mental comfort is increased by it seem completely sincere.

As YouTube user Adam Brothwood posted on the ASMR channel gentlewhispering, “ASMR literally changed my life. I [used] to suffer from severe panic attacks with long periods of depression with no light at the end of the tunnel…it was as though I was broken with no manual to fix the problem. I would smoke weed and take drugs to self medicate but it only made it worse. Long term benefit of ASMR is that I am now confident and have a healthy, balanced state of mind. My outlook on life has never been better.” Others’ testimonials may not be quite as enthusiastic, but at least a third of the posts in the comments sections of most ASMR videos and channels at any given time seem to be from people who claim improvement in some psychological condition.

Yet, for as useful as knowledge of the phenomenon could be for medical science and neurology, research on it has only begun recently, and has barely scratched the surface – while it’s hardly disputable that a lot of people are having similar sensations for similar reasons, the precise mechanics and origins of the brain tingles are an utter mystery. Jennifer Allen’s ASMR Research and Support, despite being purely online-based and without a physical central office anywhere in the world, has been fairly successful in its outreach efforts, soliciting interest for brain scans and other trials of people undergoing ASMR. Noted brain scientists Steven Novella of Yale’s neurology department and Tom Stafford of Sheffield University’s school of psychology have said there’s a need for in-depth research.

Novella, who describes himself as a “debunker of unproven alternative medical practices,” first began to investigate the phenomenon at the suggestion of a reader of his blog posts. He later wrote on the blog of the New England Skeptical Society that the differences between those who do and don’t get ASMR can provide insight into the diversity of brain structures. He also put forth his own theory on the origin of the brain tingles: “Perhaps ASMR is a type of seizure….seizures can sometimes be pleasurable and can be triggered by those sorts of things (auditory stimuli).” He also suggested in his blog posting that “What we need at this point are functional MRI (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation studies that look at what is happening in the brains of people while experiencing ASMR, vs typical controls”.

Stafford, though he called ASMR “inherently difficult to research” in an interview with The Independent, compared it to synaesthesia, the phenomenon of crossed-over senses (tasting sounds and such) that was thought to be a myth until in-depth research was finally done about it around twenty years ago.

“The first step we need to take is to find a tangible link between these stimuli,” wrote Dartmouth University neurology student and ASMR researcher Bryson Lochte in an email. Lochte is currently using the Dartmouth Brain Imaging Laboratory’s facilities to view the nerve impulses of a diverse group of test subjects. “We are using fMRI machines to scan the brains of people who report experiencing ASMR, and those who don’t, while being exposed to gentle sounds. Hopefully, we will be able to find out which brain areas are active during ASMR and this might explain the tingling and euphoric sensation associated with the experience.”

Lochte’s study is expected to be completed by the end of May of this year, and though his procedures were funded largely by Dartmouth itself and the school’s National Institutes of Health grants, they depended upon the cooperation of many people who experience ASMR. The one person who arranged for Lochte to get the workforce of volunteers he needed to get his start was Andrew MacMuiris, The Unnamed Feeling blogger and member of Allen’s ASMR Research and Support group.

“My duty was and is to raise ASMR awareness,” MacMuiris wrote in an email. “Our ultimate goal was always to have ASMR researched, I suppose in order to satisfy our curiosity. To date, Dartmouth College is the one institution that has expressed an interest in researching ASMR. At the moment we’re really just waiting for the results of the study to be released publicly. I imagine that once we have all the answers we’re looking for and ASMR is globally recognised as being real, it will be enough.” MacMuiris’s efforts have not been in vain; in the past two years ASMR has gained a Wikipedia page that seems to be permanent after having been taken down multiple times for “lack of notability,” a listing on the popular slang-collection website UrbanDictionary.com, many a Facebook fan page worldwide, and coverage in magazines and on NPR.

Online ASMR enthusiasts seem to have a unity of vision that’s remarkable even for a small subculture whose members can be expected to share a lot of opinions. There has seemingly yet to be an “ASMR schism,” in other words. A cynic would expect petty differences such as diametrically opposed triggers or different attitudes towards neurological research to tear the tingle-seekers apart, but somehow experiencing the same strange-but-pleasurable sensations and wanting to know more about them has been enough to cause general peace and love. No ASMR vlogger has had any negative experiences with their fans, or at least none they care to admit to.

Indeed, Ilse Blansert says she draws on a kind of “positive energy” from the people who watch and comment on her videos.

“To tell the truth, my fans are my main source of inspiration [for new videos],” she said in an interview over Skype. “I run out of ideas very quickly and when I’m mentally drained in that way I can always fall back on just fulfilling someone’s request that they’ve posted. The idea that I’m making someone’s day better with something that they particularly wanted to see, makes me feel better even if I’ve had a bad day.”

Maria, of gentlewhispering, also says she’s never gotten anything but love and support from her fans – “Maria, you are absolutely my favorite ASMRtist and I am finding myself looking forward to bedtime just so I can watch one of your videos, I think i’ve watched each one at least 3 times!” writes YouTube commenter n0dice1 in an extremely typical comment on the channel. She has, however, had trouble with the administration of YouTube, which she says has undervalued her fan base and underpaid her for the terms of her YouTube earnings-sharing contract in the past.

“I know YouTube and hence Google makes a lot of money as a corporation from the advertising on videos, especially on channels like mine that reach a large audience,” she said in a Skype interview. “I read the fine print of my contract terms after they offered it to me and for the first few months they paid me about what I had expected for my views and video output but even when I got more viewers and put more out it stayed about the same or even dropped. The ASMR community is all about helping each other to overcome anxiety or stress, or simply to feel at peace, and YouTube wants to exploit that good will.”

Aspiring ASMR vlogger Marina Galios of New York said that giving back after benefiting from ASMR videos herself is part of her motivation, but acknowledged that the prospect of whispering for an audience of thousands is “intimidating.”

“The major reason why I haven’t put together a YouTube channel or posted videos yet is stage fright,” Galios said. “But ASMR has helped calm my nerves in the past and allowed me to get over some of my anxiety—somehow it doesn’t help for this kind of nervousness though!”

Galios may have trouble finding her footing and getting her start, but the key to becoming a major ASMR vlogger seems to be keeping the ball rolling—not stopping once you start. For better or for worse, the people who make tingle-triggering videos are playing to an Internet-based audience. The sheer amount of free content on the Internet naturally makes that anonymous crowd more impatient and fickle than perhaps any other. The mass attitude towards ASMR videos, as with any other media series online, seems to be “if there’s not new content here, I’ll just seek it somewhere else.” Blansert took a hiatus from making videos over the winter holidays but is now back to an average of one video per week; others post much more often than that. During that hiatus, her channel was deluged with comments urging her return—“how could you leave us, Ilse?” and “guess I’ll have to tide myself over with another whisperer.” There may be no magic formula to becoming notable as an ASMR vlogger, but the way to stay notable is by the simple expedient of putting your face and/or voice out for public viewing as much as possible. Of course, the human voice in all its variations is capable of mellowing almost anyone out if it says the right things in the right tone and the right pace. Having a distinctive voice isn’t a requirement for making it as an ASMR artist, but it seems to help greatly.

Indeed, many people who experience ASMR report that their first experience with it was caused by a man whose impossibly calm voice made him a minor pop-cultural icon. Both Blansert and Galios say that they got head tingles when they watched PBS host Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” when they were young. Ross’ hippie-afro hairstyle and his relentlessly upbeat message that everyone has the potential to be a great artist made him ripe for parody, but the ASMR community has embraced his earnestness and dulcet tones and made him into an early brain-tingle hero more than fifteen years after his death.

“Cliched as it may be, everyone who talks about Bob Ross mentions his ‘magic voice,’” says Cameron Morfit, a journalist who wrote about Ross’ life and career for the New York Times. “I would estimate that, quite honestly, the percentage of his fans who watched him mostly for the painting tips is around ten percent. There are people who have never considered taking up art in their lives who love Bob Ross, because that voice relaxes them like nothing else can. I’ve also heard of it causing physical sensations like tingling.”

Thus ASMR has been a part of the recent American pop-cultural landscape even without most media consumers knowing anything about it. The interconnectedness and speed of information and communication in the modern world is said to cause us all to be more stressed than ever, and relief from that is always welcome. The more people find themselves unable to relax, the more they’ll stumble upon the ASMR section of YouTube, and the more the fame and the bank accounts of people like Ilse Blansert and Maria and perhaps Marina Galios will continue to grow. The ASMR subculture is not “the wave of the future,” it’s merely a consequence of how we live and work today, and the primal needs of comfort, rest, and companionship that we’ll always crave fulfillment of. For the lonely and anxious people who happen to have their nervous systems wired a certain way, the tingles will always be some solace, and thankfully for all parties involved, it seems that there will be plenty more people willing to provide them down the line.