The sensation begins at the base of my skull. It radiates up to my scalp, behind my ears, and across my forehead. It creeps down my spine and out to my fingertips like a faint, slow-moving spark along a fuse. This mysterious and wonderful feeling has a name and over the past decade awareness of it has spread worldwide.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is the term given to that tingling feeling felt in the head, spine and extremities. It is triggered by visual or auditory stimuli, such as whispering, tapping or repetitive movements. Feelings of calm and well-being often accompany the physical sensation.
Those who enjoy such ASMR experiences often search online for “trigger” videos in hopes of finding more frequent and reliable sources to ignite that sparkly sensation. They seek out soft, whispered words, the sounds of brushing, dusting, tapping or crinkling, and meticulous attention to detail. Some turn to ASMR videos to induce a state of extreme and sustained relaxation, one resembling the luxuriously calm state that precedes sleep. Others use the videos as effective relief for insomnia.
These videos — lasting from a few minutes to as long as an hour — are made by individuals all over the globe who record themselves carefully performing actions and soft sounds that typically stimulate the ASMR response.
The scientific community has been largely dismissive of the ASMR phenomenon. Of the scant research, however, a February 2016 article in the International Journal of School & Educational Psychology suggests that the considerable energy and time spent creating and watching videos that would usually “be considered inordinately boring on the basis of plot and action alone” indicates that viewers are responding viscerally to the stimuli. The thousands of ASMR YouTube videos and millions of corresponding views corroborate this. GentleWhispering, the most successful ASMR YouTube channel, run by a 28-year-old Russian ex-pat living in the U.S., for example, has more than 600,000 subscribers and 200 million views.
In Japan, my own experience of ASMR in daily life continues to stray further into the mundane. Most recently, the checkout process at the supermarket has emerged as a trigger. Typically I arrive at the register with a jumbled puzzle of items and the clerk unfailingly transforms my heap into a compact, ordered pile. This impressive game of Tetris comes complete with whispered narration of every move.
Whether it be the deliberate organization of a shopping basket or the careful execution of traditional crafts such as origami, calligraphy and ikebana, potential ASMR triggers abound in Japanese life. Ascendant among them is the Japanese tea ceremony. With its distinct, yet subtle sounds of pouring water, the snap of folding cloth, the tap of the tea-measuring tool or the swish of the bamboo whisk and its exquisitely precise movements — the performance distills the most essential elements of reliable triggers.
“There are many triggers in the everyday world,” says Yukino Yumijuku, who operates a popular Japanese ASMR YouTube channel from her Tokyo apartment. The 30-year-old actress and musician, whose channel currently has more than 23,000 subscribers, is continually surprised by the variety of sounds and actions that can trigger ASMR in different people. She agrees that Japan is particularly rich in content and offers examples such as the soft voice and graceful gestures of those who operate elevators at department stores and the sound of traditional Japanese tabi socks as they shuffle across tatami.
Yumijuku, who gets around Tokyo on her motorcycle, draws on her own life for ASMR inspiration. One of her videos showcases her motorcycle toolbox and the ASMR triggering sounds the tools make as she uses them or taps them with her fingernails. She says she experiences the sensation herself, but was unaware that it had a name until a friend showed her an ASMR video online. That was two years ago. Soon after, she bought a high-quality microphone and started making her own ASMR videos on her Macbook, setting up her YouTube channel in early 2014.
Despite the endless potential for ASMR triggers, Yumijuku believes that there is no appropriate terminology for ASMR in Japanese. The prevailing term for the response is “oto-fechi,” which, she says, translates as “sound fetish.”
“I don’t think oto-fechi is ASMR. I don’t like those words,” she says. The word “fetish,” she explains, carries a sexual connotation that misrepresents the broader power of ASMR. In fact, the scientific studies in existence indicate that ASMR has the power to mitigate symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain in much the same way that mindfulness and meditation are proving to alleviate such maladies.
Yumijuku thinks a better description of ASMR would be one that conveys the involuntary and spontaneous nature of the response. “The trigger sound goes straight into the ear and to the brain,” she says and she makes a zinging, shooting sound to underscore the speed with which the trigger travels. There is no time spent interpreting; relaxation occurs instantly.
Some skeptics, however, believe ASMR videos are nothing more than erotica. And Yumijuku is very aware of this.
“If you search for ‘ASMR’ and ‘Japan’ on YouTube, you get many sexual video hits, but in America and outside Japan there are more ‘real’ ASMR videos,” she says. Her goal is to introduce “real” ASMR to Japanese people.
Institutions such as neighborhood communal bathhouses (sentō) and serene temple complexes in the middle of crowded cities speak to a cultural tradition that values relaxation. However, the frenetic pace of modern life often overwhelms this proclivity. The existence and use of communal bathhouses, for example, is in decline; there is no longer the time or the need for a regular bathing ritual that involves leaving one’s house. Perhaps ASMR-trigger videos tailored to Japanese audiences and available around the clock on smart phones and computers are just the tonic many modern-day Japanese need to reconnect with the country’s art of relaxation.
When Yumijuku hosted her first live ASMR event last December, the response was encouraging. The audience, seated in reclining chairs equipped with earphones, mellowed out as she whispered, tapped, crinkled and took requests in real time on stage. The performance was an experiment rather than a moneymaker but, for Yumijuku, the value was in the positive audience feedback. “I will try another ASMR live event this year,” she says.
Although factors may point to Japan as an ASMR paradise, the take-off of the phenomenon has been sluggish in comparison to the United States and South Korea, for example.
Perhaps consumers interested in ASMR’s relaxing and calming qualities find the sexualization of the term “sound fetish” in Japan off-putting. The good news for ASMR fans, however, is that while sifting through some spurious content may be necessary, Japanese “ASMRtists” are producing many gems that await to delight the nervous system.