ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is just a cumbersome name for the feeling of pleasant tingles on your upper body that you might get from having your hair brushed, or when someone whispers softly just behind your ear. ASMR videos seek to reproduce this feeling via triggers, a subjective assortment of sounds that can include whispering, fingernail tapping, page turning, or any quiet noise the video maker believes might be pleasant to hear. Never had this feeling? In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes it well: “Septimus heard her say ‘Kay Arr’ close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper's, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound.”
I can’t remember how I stumbled upon ASMR, but once found I knew I’d discovered something amazing, like tasting hazelnut gelato for the first time. Many videos have titles like, “Personal Attention ASMR Deep Relaxation Tinglezzzzzzzzz.” Who wouldn’t want personal attention and deep relaxation and tingles? Those are all objectively wonderful, and the personal attention aspect captures, I believe, a large part of the videos’ appeal. And while I’ll admit they can get a little fetishy (look up “ASMR roleplay” and you’ll discover videos simulating a dental exam, a lip injection, and a lice check performed by a school nurse—?!?), I think most of us watching are “tingleheads,” just desiring brief washes of gentle euphoria. The vast, vast majority of videos are produced by beautiful, usually white women with flawless skin who’ve mastered the ability to appear nurturing and sexually attractive at the same time. The most successful ASMRtists can garner views in the millions.
At some point while writing my novel, I started listening to ASMR videos in the background while I work. There’s something deliciously satisfying about the experience, like getting a massage at your desk while you work. One of the queens of the genre is Maria whose YouTube channel is called Gentle Whispering ASMR. Originally from Russia, Maria posts mostly in English, though she’ll do occasional videos in the old tongue. I don’t speak any Russian, so these videos are a perfect background while I write. They relax me. They make me feel warm and comfortable so my mind is free to wander and create without judgement, and isn’t that what all us writers are striving for? To arrive at a flow state where the words trickle down out of our fingers like steady rain? So what if I arrive at that point because a beautiful blonde is whispering to me in a foreign language about the basics of essential oils? And yes, elephant in the room, there’s probably some motherly nurturance deficit I’m looking to fill, but let’s save that for another post on mother issues, k?
Maria often begins her videos with a quiet “Hi sweetie.” Not “Hi everyone,” or “Hello world,” but a singular address to one person, invoking a private space shared by only her and her imagined viewer. The comments below her videos reflect the deeply personal connection viewers have with her, offering praise and thanks as they struggle with insomnia, chronic anxiety, PTSD, and more. There are ten-thousand ways to hurt in this world and ASMR videos have stepped in as a sort of robot nanny of the digital age. They tell us it’s all going to be ok, gently brush our cheek, and pull the covers up tight before turning off the light. Writing simulates this personal attention and connection too. It’s me reaching out from the page and grabbing the reader by the shoulders and shaking her and saying, “This is lovely! Pay attention!” It just may be that I need to bring myself into this same state of openness and nurturance in order to pass it on, in turn, to my readers. What’s wrong with a little personal attention?
Read Elizabeth’s 2018 Pushcart nominated short story “Schumpert, Texas: You’re Already Here.”
Elizabeth's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Tishman Review, and elsewhere. Her short story, “Cosmic Blues,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train's 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers and she also received three Pushcart Prize nominations in 2018. She lives with her family in Oakland, California. You can find her on Twitter: @unefemmejames.