You’re in Good Virtual Hands: On ASMR, Anxiety, Relaxation in the Side-Hustle Economy, and Being Baby
In this strange territory of dorkiness, role-playing, and absurd props, there is something like real magic, and it makes me shiver.
This is , a monthly column by Sarah Lyn Rogers on finding self and community in digital spaces.
Dog bite. Cat scratch. Spider crawling up your back—bite-bite-bite! Cool breeze. Tight squeeze. Now you have the shiverees
These videos get thousands to millions of views. An ASMR subreddit has over 200,000 members. ASMRtists have Patreon accounts for exclusive content. There’s an ASMR-specific app called Tingles. This is a weirdly popular niche. Yet not everyone who watches ASMR videos experiences ASMR. Comments on videos from people who don’t “experience tingles,” as it’s often phrased, say that they find them simply relaxing.
What is it about this dorky imaginary space that is so popular? What void is it filling?
I think it’s two things.
One: It seems generally agreed upon that adults, at least in US culture . . . don’t have tender feelings or ever need to be soothed? And if we do, the responsibility of fulfilling that need should fall solely to a romantic partner (an expectation which is not realistic or fair). And if you don’t have a romantic partner, you just Deal? I think people are starving for a kind of comfort and care we have been trained to find embarrassing. These videos provide a genuine performance of that care.
Two, and this is mostly a hunch on my part: certain effects of these ASMR videos produce a low-key hypnosis/trance state that actually alters our brain waves, slowing them, making us relax when we might otherwise be thinking of a zillion other things. So, good on us, finding efficient, utilitarian ways to relax. (Yikes.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that ASMR videos are mostly a younger-people thing. Millennials have grown up with a side-hustle culture that makes us believe that all of our free time should be productive. We can’t trust any one thing to protect or sustain us; many of us work day jobs if we can get them but also have side gigs. (I have been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, an SEO video titler, a quality assurance tester for online courses, a data entry . . . person). We even have side gigs that don’t pay, like our labor-of-love creative projects. Personally, I am always writing and editing poems, tracking my submissions on a spreadsheet, strategizing where to submit next, keeping lists of essay ideas, feeling embarrassed about a novel I have rewritten four times.
Gaslit by previous generations, millennials live as if in answer to the question “What do you have to show for yourself,” and the majority of us absolutely cannot point to wealth or any type of “acceptable” status to say, “Here, look, proof that my external circumstances are not a result of laziness or moral failing.” This feeling of look, I am trying. I am always trying. My gears don’t stop spinning at bedtime. Some piece of my attention is always turned to my to-do lists or to crisis: interpersonal crisis, political crisis, climate crisis. I’m not alone in this. And multitasking is made-up, so what we’re actually always doing is fragmenting our attention, leaching energy.
I “can’t” meditate because my brain never turns off. There is always some task to do, some piece of conversation to rehash and pull apart and wonder how to fix in the future. I can’t lower the volume on this in general; I can only completely reject it for a few minutes at a time. A person tires of having to be an adult, of having to be “on” all the time. And so the “I’m baby” meme was born, a joke about being unable “to adult.” My meme-queen friend Aiden Arata put it best: “Being baby is a radical response to a culture in which older generations have infantilized us without nurturing us, a rejection of capitalist productivity standards, a joyful reclamation of tenderness, a revolution.” Some nights, I reach a point where I cannot make one more decision of consequence, and I resign myself to ice cream and my flannel witchy-print robe and entering a loopy headspace where songs and puns reign supreme. I put my phone in my husband’s pocket so I will stop scrolling through it. The internalized capitalist and people-pleaser in me says this is wasted time, but would a small child worry about this? Hopefully not.
If there’s a person in your life who will let you Be Baby when you’re overwhelmed (like, say, carrying you like a little koala when you ask), treasure them. (And remember that they need to be nurtured sometimes, too.) For everyone else, there’s ASMR. Something magical happens when I listen to these ASMR videos—they’re very narrow focal points where nothing else is asked of me but to experience them. I don’t have to consider how valuable (or not) I am—I don’t have to think about me, or anyone else, for a few. It’s like guided meditation. The world can wait for twenty restorative minutes.
Some of us, through social conditioning, default to caretaker roles when we’re with other people. Taking care of others—their physical and mental well-being—is not a bad thing, of course! But it becomes a problem if this is the only way we know how to be in the company of others. If it’s a switch that doesn’t turn off, or the thought of turning it off makes us very uncomfortable, or we have been made to feel that something is wrong with us when we turn it off, how are we supposed to relax around other people, ever? Being a caretaker is, by its very nature, the opposite of being a no-strings-attached receiver of care—of Being Baby. I’m not saying that any of us have the right to be totally thoughtless in our dealings with others (no one does); I’m not condoning being an asshole. Just that relaxation isn’t simple when you have a mind that you must trick into relaxing. So I am fully in favor of these tricks.
There’s a level of much-needed comfort and care that the distancing veil of the Internet makes accessible and as stress-free as possible for anxious people. (I recognize that my experience is the total opposite of whatever makes internet trolls believe that the people they are bullying online are “not real.” We’re all real!) It does feel pretty weird to be soothed by generic platitudes from total strangers—there’s a definite cheesiness factor. But I’m not self-conscious about relaxing during these videos because no other consciousness is present to judge this self. So much of existing in a socially acceptable way in the outside world involves performing stoicism. It’s nice to be able to be soft. And for me, it feels safest to be soft when I’m in my own space.
I think this is what’s attractive about the personal attention-style ASMR videos—the world outside of the relaxation experience (no matter how absurd the relaxation experience) ceases to exist. And doesn’t it feel nice to be the focus of gentle attention, without the weird game of wondering if you “deserve” this, or feeling embarrassed? Gentle Whispering ASMR does this well—her vocal delivery is Amy Adams-esque, reminiscent of a sweet elementary school teacher or a kind flight attendant. So does Emma of WhispersRed ASMR, who wrote a book on ASMR and whose demeanor in her videos is like a comforting mother. In one video, she cares for you, the viewer, as though you are home sick from school. In their virtual hands, it’s easy to feel Baby.
There’s something self-consciously innocent about many of these videos, like one in which Gentle Whispering asserts that the viewer is a garden plant she is studying, or a Christmas tree she is decorating. “You have nice, wide branches that reach out, easily decorated,” she says, beaming, in the latter. It’s strange and delightful and silly to be spoken to as though you are a plant (reminiscent of Everything, a feel-good acid trip of a game, with sound clips from philosopher Alan Watts, in which the player’s goal is to be everything, every plant, animal, building, dust particle, etc. on earth). Strange and silly is good for the soul, IMHO.
I appreciate the kind labor of these creators. Yes, they want clicks and likes and subscribes and patrons. I respect that. It’s a nice, not-emotionally-fraught trade. The difference between Being Baby and being a baby is that I am not actually helpless. I’m choosing to open up to unconditional tenderness in this small way that fits in a life where I’m a grown person of consequence. It’s not possible for me to be this tender all of the time—if I were, I believe I would be ground down into nothing, like a ripe raspberry I once watched my cat lick into oblivion. But I believe a connection with one’s tenderness is important.
In the comments, I find a world of fellows, people with anxiety and depression who can’t sleep, who are full of love for these videos and their makers, and I am ironically privy to their private struggles because they are sharing them with other strangers in this public forum. The internet still has some cozy corners. It isn’t just about inciting rage or screaming into the void.
There are other, more institutional ways to feel Baby, which are part of “real life” but we think of them as just transactions and services. Imagine how much money you’d have to spend for all of these haircuts, massages, facials, makeovers, even consultations like eye exams that ASMR videos recreate. These are ways in which people literally pay to be taken care of in real life. Consider the expense and the repetition of the expense. I think I’d enjoy getting a regular professional massage, but I don’t actually know because there’s no way I could commit to spending money on this, regularly and indefinitely. I haven’t paid someone to cut my hair for two years. (I’ve got blunt bangs and a steady hand.) Imagine the prohibitive expense of doing all of these things in a week, and then repeating the following week. And the logistical impossibility—a person has only so much hair to cut! It’s worth noting that most of these “real-world” experiences in which people feel cared for are paid services. These institutional, transactional care expenses suggest that only some people can afford to feel cared for.
Financial access aside, there are other ways in which people are barred from access to relaxation. Plenty of people are prevented from accessing in-person care due to physical disabilities or other mobility issues that make leaving one’s home to travel to an office and having access to that office difficult if not impossible. People who have suffered physical abuse might like the idea of a relaxing massage, but would never opt to get one because having another person’s hands near their body sends them into fight-flight-freeze mode. That’s what’s so amazing to me about ASMR. It’s the mind that needs transporting to a relaxing space. Some of us can benefit from in-person physical sensations that help send us there—having our hair washed at the hairdresser’s, for example—but ASMR videos bring this experience gently into comfortable spaces like our homes. For those of us who are not deaf or hard of hearing, ASMR videos provide better accessibility than in-person care. I like to think that for a majority of people, ASMR videos (at least virtually) democratize access to this type of care.
Still, there is something weird (to me and other people who might feel like extraterrestrials in most social situations) about the real experience of this in-person care: the barrier of being a generally anxious person who wants to “do a good job” even at being a receiver of care. Will my silence be interpreted as disapproval? Does my face convey the right amount of appreciation? There is always some part of me aware of being noticed noticing. Wondering how my words or body language might be misinterpreted and cause harm. Am I talking enough during this, am I talking too much? What do I say, how much do I tip, am I allowed to say I don’t like something, that the massage hurts, that I don’t like the haircut? I have been comfortable with certain hairdressers and one reiki therapist, but an innate thing about me is that (with one or two notable exceptions) I am never completely relaxed while sharing physical space with another person. And as a veteran service industry professional myself, I know how shitty it feels to be steamrolled by disrespect and I would never want to do that to someone else, even unintentionally.
I find that the distance allowed by the internet (not-real time, not-real space, not a “real” situation) makes me feel more relaxed than I would feel in person. Ironically, this relaxation feels more intimate with a total stranger I will never meet than it would with a “real” masseuse, aesthetician, etc. What’s happening, then? Why are these videos relaxing, with no one’s cool palms on my cheeks or forehead, no tender squeeze where my neck meets my shoulder? No actual fingers in my hair?
Why are these videos relaxing, with no one’s cool palms on my cheeks or forehead, no tender squeeze where my neck meets my shoulder? No actual fingers in my hair?
One of my theories: the special audio equipment—3Dio headphones (which have silicone ears!) and the fan-favorite Blue Yeti microphone, which record binaural, three-dimensional sound—allows for an illusion of intimacy that reminds us of times when we have been relaxed in the past. (For hypnosis, the easiest way to induce trance is to remind someone of when they’ve been in trance before.) The silicone ears look absurd, but something about recording through swirls of realistic ear canals means being able to recreate with freaky accuracy the experience of where a sound occurs in space. (At least when you’re listening with earbuds.) I know from watching so many of these that I really can feel like someone is cutting hair at my right shoulder vs. my bangs, or spritzing toner into the air near my collarbones. These close-to-the-face and behind-you sounds (as long as we don’t have any uncomfortable associations with them) remind us of the careful attention that only certain intimate situations provide. A parent or loved one stands or sits behind you to brush your hair. Your hairdresser’s scissors, comb, and spray bottle do most of their work behind your head. A whisper moves from ear to ear. Maybe someone you love reads in bed, the soft sound of the pages turning behind you as you’ve rolled over to sleep.
I believe these videos (consciously or not) utilize hypnosis techniques to induce calm. There’s a method called pacing where, as the hypnotist, you time your voice to another person’s breath, then slow your voice to slow their breath. There’s another technique called rapport, where your voice confirms someone else’s physical experience, which establishes trust and relaxation. For example, the ASMRtist might mention brushing the hair on the right side of your head and the three-dimensional audio effect produces that sound mainly in your right earbud, so the voice and the sound confirm what you “feel.” (“Feeling” what you hear is also synesthesia, so that’s pretty cool.)
The goal of hypnosis is to induce the slower Alpha and Theta (maybe even Delta) brain waves of relaxation, as opposed to the active concentration of Beta waves or the problem-solving of Gamma waves (where I feel like I get stuck). Changing the actual frequency of the brain allows the subject access to a receptive brain space. Which hopefully means the capability to change unwanted behavior by changing the connections between one’s thoughts and one’s actions. I think ASMRtists are hypnotists who may or may not realize that they are, and their only instruction to video-watchers in our relaxed state is to be chill and be kind to ourselves. Even the non-role-play ASMR videos and channels—even videos where no one speaks—are doing something similar. Maybe this is partly due to that intimacy feeling I described with the behind-you sound produced by fancy microphone tech. But repetitive sounds are known to induce that hypnosis-like trance state, a technique that’s ancient—all of that tapping and scratching and drumming, like a thread back to the mind-altering practices of our various forepeople.
My favorite ASMRtist lately is The Lune Innate, who offers an excellent combination of a soft voice, nice lighting, quality audio recording, scratching sounds, and gentle words and affirmations. She also does what I’d been looking for when I first discovered ASMR: reiki! Though ASMR videos had not initially offered this, I learned about this energy work elsewhere. In The Lune Innate’s videos, I recognize the symbols she draws in the air and on her palms. I swear I can feel that particular energy in addition to the ASMR tingles. That this amazing power to change my mental state and anxiety level—feeling pampered, cared for, calmed, in some ways even healed—exists, for free, and I can access it any time I want, is nothing short of amazing. I think the world of ASMR is one of the pinnacles of what the internet can be and do. In this strange territory of dorkiness, role-playing, and absurd props, there is something like real magic, and it makes me shiver.
Sarah Lyn Rogers is an NYC-based writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the editorial assistant for Soft Skull Press, a contributing editor for Catapult, and was formerly the fiction editor for The Rumpus. She is the author of Inevitable What (Sad Spell Press 2016), a poetry chapbook focused on magic and rituals, and was the 2014 winner of the Academy of American Poets' Virginia de Araujo prize.
For more of Sarah's work, visit sarahlynrogers.com.