'Brain orgasms'? ASMR relaxation trend joins the pop culture mainstream


Tapping fingernails that trigger goose bumps, whispers that send shivers down the spine: The brain-tingling world of ASMR has people clamoring for sounds that feel good.

The auditory-sensory phenomenon, in which people experience waves of calm and pleasurable mental quivers that are often referred to as “brain orgasms,” is emerging from the depths of the web into the cultural mainstream as a means to relax.

ASMR — autonomous sensory meridian response — has become a full-fledged internet sensation. YouTube creators notch millions of views for clips featuring stimuli — whispers, nails tapping, noodle slurping — to set off a prickle at the back of the neck.

“It’s that moment where all the hair on your body stands up,” said Bianca Hammonds, who works on the ASMR channel for the U.S. music outlet Fuse. “You kind of feel your body vibrate,” she said. “It’s like this Zen moment.”

A TV beer ad during the Super Bowl showcased ASMR, with actress Zoe Kravitz whispering, drumming her fingers against a bottle and pouring the beer to release a gentle fizz.

But it is largely hip-hop’s taste-makers who have ushered it onto the scene, with rap stars making their own ASMR videos or even integrating its techniques into their songs.

“I love ASMR,” Cardi B whispers during a clip she made with fashion magazine W. “My husband thinks it’s very strange and weird that I watch ASMR every single day to go to bed,” the rap queen continues in hushed tones, tapping and caressing the mic with her signature extra-long nail extensions.

The subgenre’s velvety qualities have led some people to dub ASMR sexual. China began censoring it last year, saying web users were releasing porn under its veil.

But experts have likened ASMR to massage or yoga, saying it is not inherently sexual, although it can be suggestive.

Just 5 percent of participants reported using it for arousal in a 2015 British survey. More recently, a 2018 study from the University of Sheffield in England found that, unlike sex, ASMR actually reduces the heart rate.

Predominately popular among teenagers and 20-somethings, ASMR’s online fan base began forming around 2010.

“I always knew I liked people to whisper in my ear. I just didn’t know the term for it,” said Cedrick Williams, an ASMR video creator from Mobile, Alabama. “When I started doing it, no one really knew what it was,” said the 27-year-old, who started his ASMR YouTube channel in 2017 and says the side gig makes about $100 per month.

“It’s blowing up — now everybody’s doing it,” according to Williams, who listens to ASMR to alleviate anxiety and insomnia.

When making his own videos, he favors whispering rap songs: “With hip-hop you can have a very diverse sound with your voice, so if you can master whispering, in ASMR it works very well.”

Craig Richard, an ASMR researcher at Virginia’s Shenandoah University, said the relationship also works in reverse, saying there is a “clear trend of integration of ASMR into hip-hop.”

The British-born, Atlanta-based rapper 21 Savage, whose immigration travails recently launched him into the global spotlight, has a song titled “asmr” and also introduced whispering onto a track with producer Metro Boomin, “Don’t Come Out The House.”

Richard says the ASMR-rap marriage makes sense: “With hip-hop and rap there can be incorporation of spoken word, which allows the ability to whisper and still be within their musical genre.”

Plus, he said, rappers aim to stay fresh: “They’re reflecting back to their younger fan base because they drive the trends.”

Despite its growing association with the genre, rap is not the only style drawing inspiration from ASMR. The Canadian electronic music DJ deadmau5 sampled a whispering YouTube star for the song “Terrors In My Head.”

For Hammonds, starting an ASMR series at music-focused Fuse was a “no brainer.”

“We wanted to tap into a subculture,” she said of their project entitled “Mind Massage.”

“It focuses on sound, and we focus on music culture, so we wanted to see what we could do there,” said Hammonds, who attributes ASMR’s popularity to its meditative qualities.

“We’re in this world of constant distraction and overshare,” she said. “To actually listen in on something that’s making you relax — literally focusing on the sounds — I think that’s why it’s really popular.”

Rappers are eager to do a segment, she said, because “they’re respecting these subcultures as a way to bloom.”

So far acclaimed trap producer Zaytoven along with rappers T-Pain and Wiz Khalifa are among those to appear on Fuse ASMR clips — but there is one rap legend Hammonds is aiming for.

“I can’t wait for us to get Snoop Dogg,” she said.