You may have come across ASMR videos on YouTube and been baffled at people speaking softly while they pretend to cut your hair or do your makeup. But for some New Zealanders these videos are not just a way to relax, but an aid to their mental health. Baz Macdonald investigates.
A beautiful young man dressed in a crisp white shirt leans towards the camera. He smiles sweetly and with a distinct New Zealand accent softly asks “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? Are you comfortable?”.
Though you’re watching a video, this young man is transporting you to a GP’s office where he is giving you his undivided attention and care. But that’s not all. For the portion of the population who are – or believe themselves to be – sensitive to the autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, it is also sending them into a meditative state, and potentially even sending tingles through their bodies.
The young man in the video is Jimmy Hazelwood, an actor and musician based in Auckland who is also New Zealand’s most popular ASMR artist, or “ASMRtist”. He is one of thousands of people all over the world who are making content for those sensitive to ASMR, a community that first emerged with force in 2012 and has grown steadily ever since.
.Jimmy Hazelwood is NZ’s most popular ASMR artist. He specialises in role-play videos such as this one.
Local viewers have been at the forefront of this movement. Google shows that, per capita, New Zealand has the fifth highest search count for ASMR in the world. New Zealand ASMR search traffic has followed the growing trend since its initial boom in 2012 but saw a huge spike in June last year, when local news outlets first started asking the question “What is ASMR?”.
So, what the hell is ASMR?
Your favourite tune is blasting and it has your full attention. You follow as the music dips and swells, finally building to a crescendo.
As the musical energy peaks, you feel a tingle on the crown of your head, which quickly descends down your spine and out into your extremities – a really satisfying shiver that brings goosebumps out on your arms and makes your hair stand on end.
This is an experience that most people will have had at some point in their life. It is a common phenomenon known in the scientific community as frisson, and sometimes colloquially referred to as an “ear-gasm”. It has been estimated that as much as 86% of us experience frisson while listening to music, or while experiencing other stimuli such as movies or TV.
Though it is not a perfect comparison, imagine if you could receive a similar tingle by watching a video in which someone speaks to you in a soft voice, or creates auditory effects (such as water dripping, paper crinkling, or rubbing sounds), or even pretends to cut your hair or do your makeup.
Though for ASMR-sensitive people these videos offer more than just a tingle. For many, these videos offer a deeply relaxing, meditative experience. What’s more, many ASMR viewers say watching these videos has helped them deal with insomnia, anxiety, depression, and even chronic pain.
.ASMR Darling is one of the most popular ASMR artists on YouTube. This is her most popular video.
A survey of ASMR users conducted by researchers from Swansea University in Wales found that of the sample group, 98% used the videos as a way to relax, 82% used them as an aid in getting to sleep, and 70% used them as a way to deal with stress and anxiety.
Amazingly, the ASMR phenomenon was not identified or promulgated by scientists. Rather, its evolution has been one of the successes of the digital age. ASMR was first identified and classified in discussions in online chatrooms around 2008. From these discussions people online began to experiment with ways of triggering this response, and as a community they developed and refined the fundamentals of creating ASMR triggers. It was these triggers that artists began creating videos around, building the genre into a massively diverse collection of videos. Now anything you can imagine probably exists as an ASMR sub-category, from simple auditory stimulation all the way to elaborate fantasy themed role-play videos.
Only now, with YouTube home to over 10 million ASMR videos watched by many times that number, is the scientific community beginning to pay attention. There is now a small but growing body of research into the science behind ASMR.
Even at this early stage, scientists have identified some interesting features of the phenomenon, even if they cannot yet fully explain them. For example, a study conducted by the University of Winnipeg had people sensitive to ASMR watch triggering videos while in an MRI machine in order to study their brain activity. The study concluded that while watching these videos, the brains of those sensitive to ASMR reacted notably differently to that of the control group.
ASMR has been compared to flow-state, which is sometimes colloquially referred to by athletes and performers as being “in the zone”. This is a deeply focused, near-ecstatic state during which one loses track of time and space; often outside stimuli such as pain have no effect. Some psychologists have theorised that ASMR videos create a flow-like state in those who respond to them.
But it seems not everyone is susceptible to the effects of ASMR. Scientists believe is an atypical condition, meaning fewer people experience ASMR than do not.
This scientific interest in ASMR does not yet appear to have reached New Zealand: there is currently no research being conducted on the subject in this country. In fact, the local psychological community is surprisingly oblivious to it. Of the dozen psychologist academics and practitioners I spoke to for this story, only a few had even heard of ASMR.
Creating ASMR content
Jimmy Hazelwood has been creating ASMR videos for the past two years. He’s quickly become the most popular New Zealand ASMR artist, with many of his videos reaching over 60,000 views.
Jimmy thinks one of the primary reasons people watch his ASMR videos is for the New Zealand accent. Comments on his videos often mention how much they like his voice, or that they find it relaxing. “Geezus that NZ accent is heaven,” one reads. Jimmy, who is ASMR sensitive himself, says one of his favourite ASMR artists is Scottish. He believes her accent is a big reason why her videos work so well for him.
Jimmy says his main ASMR triggers are whispering and the sound of water, but it was the nurturing, comforting role-play videos that really drew him in. While the ASMR world is filled with a huge variety of styles and approaches, it can generally be broken down into two categories: content made to illicit ASMR through sound alone, and that which uses ASMR techniques to create the nurturing and comforting experiences that Jimmy reacted so strongly to.
Jimmy only identified the sensation as ASMR a few years ago but, like many other ASMR sensitive people, he says his reaction to ASMR stimuli goes back to childhood.
“I remember when I was seven or eight my family were parked in carpark in Huntly and my dad was blissing out watching this guy washing windows. We thought it was weird and didn’t know what he was talking about. But after that I tried to understand … if I was at the bank or something and someone was working slowly and in great detail, I would focus on it and kind of bliss out too.”
Around three years ago Jimmy overheard a university friend discussing ASMR videos and realised that this was the phenomenon that his dad, and later he, had experienced.
For people who aren’t sensitive to ASMR, watching an ASMR video for the first time can be a baffling experience. Jimmy says even now, with the condition gaining more mainstream acceptance, he still gets strange reactions when people discover he makes ASMR-triggering videos.
“I show some people and they look at me like ‘I don’t know what the hell I just watched, what were you doing?’.”
He admits that anyone who saw him making the videos would think he looks pretty stupid, but that’s easy to ignore when viewers tell him how much they help them.
“Your videos are very relaxing!” reads one typical comment. “I’ve had a lot of panic attacks, at a point they were almost daily so ASMR is definitely something I frequent a lot. Since I’ve started taking medication, it’s a lot better. Videos like yours help too. Thank you so much! Keep up the good work :)”
Jimmy says he has struggled with stress and anxiety himself, so it’s incredibly satisfying to hear how his videos are having an effect. He says comments like the one above reflect the overall positivity of the ASMR online community.
“It’s amazing. People on the internet love to troll, but this community is just so kind and supportive. It is like tapping into this comforting world.”
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