The first episode of the second season of Midnight Diner – a melancholic Japanese television show based on Yaro Abe’s Shin’ya Shokudo manga series – opens inauspiciously with a pot over a stove. Sliced bacon lands into a pool of hot oil with a thud. Then chopped vegetables, stock and water that abates the sizzling. As the pot bubbles and noodles are boiled, the sound becomes more distant and the camera cuts away to frame the shokudo from the darkened street outside. In recent months, this collection of short stories, following connections between strangers, set during the dead of night when the world feels fast asleep, has been playing on repeat. Soft in tone and slow in tempo, the series taps into an emergent reality: a nudging feeling of being alone, together.
The narrative arc of each episode is simple and poignant. Characters find joy in unexpected encounters wreathed by the nostalgia that the aroma and flavours of a certain dish – often childhood favourites – can recall. Plum rice balls stand for comfort; curry ramen resonates with loss. The show is a backdrop to solitary moments, ones I know well. In the uncertainty of near-global quarantine, I’m surely not alone. Connected to ever-present messaging services and continuously focussed on the next video call, I’ve come to understand that this show subdues anxiety. It is more than entertainment; it is, in fact, settling. Faced by a moment in which each new day offers up a new challenge to our collective stability, the constant can become a crutch. Like, for instance, the relationship I have forged with Dylan Thomas’ tapestry of characters in his seminal play Under Milk Wood, watching Midnight Diner allows for a space of intimacy – a sense of security. It provides me with an impression of passive stillness that is, above all, reassuring.
To offer reassurance and to be reassured is a powerful, primal form of intimacy. As society accelerates and in turn distances, points of access to this type of intimacy have become more obscure and increasingly difficult to find. To spend time with others online often begins with a seductive, unintuitive scrape along a frictionless surface: the screen of a smartphone, a trackpad, a keyboard and so on. This motion, however natural it may feel in the moment, belies an expectation of in-real-life (IRL) intimacy. In reality, what is felt can often feel inadequate in a context in which control and consent – usually a nuanced, embodied negotiation between two people – is flattened as an image and framed in a rectangle.
Although we tend to understand shades of intimacy as interchangeable, in its digital form – let’s call this form effective intimacy – not as much is demanded from us, nor in the same way as it is IRL. Effective intimacy is equally as valid a feeling but is, nonetheless, different from being physically near or close. We often hold our smartphones near to our hearts, both literally and metaphorically, but digital ‘feels’ are deceptively difficult to grasp. Our digital persona melts almost as soon as an interaction ends, and the darkness that lingers once the screen has powered down can reveal solitude or, at worst, a sense of loneliness, with unsettling clarity. When understood as a replacement for an IRL connection, the void that is created can leave us ruminating at the edge of emptiness until our attention, intractable as it is, is pulled elsewhere and momentarily sedated.
Reality is jarring, and it can be fickle. An intimate moment IRL can be tense, exposing, confusing and ambiguous, shaped by proximities that are defined by our own and our shared experiences. Effective intimacy and its on-demand online ease of ‘on’ and ‘off,’ or ‘accept’ and ‘deny,’ is less of a replacement and more of a substitute for IRL contact. The gradations are strikingly different. To recognise that intimacy has many adjacencies – that it can be close and clear as much as it can be remote and indistinct – is useful to acknowledge as new structures of collective feeling consolidate around, between and among us.
NEW STRUCTUES OF COLLECTIVE FEELING
ASMR, the acronym for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, stands for a community, a culture and a creative field that refers to a spectrum of emotional and/or psychological reactions. Anecdotally, an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response can range from ‘tingly’ euphoria and deep relaxation to almost nothing at all and, in some cases, an unsettling sensation commonly likened to misophonia.1 ASMR is perhaps the largest cultural niche on the internet. At its core, it orients attention towards specific sounds, movements and the personalities that produce them. The majority of ASMRtists (the term used to describe the creatives who produce works designed to trigger a response) do not seek to entertain but rather to relax. Hundreds of new works are uploaded to video-sharing and podcasting platforms each day and are devoured by those seeking alleviation from stress or insomnia, and more besides. Abandoning speed in favour of slowness, the movement harnesses hyper-connectivity and the screens in our hands in order to subvert the relentless flow of information, entertainment and acceleration. When looked at as a form of effective intimacy, ASMR is among the most important signifiers of internet-bred forms of collective feeling.
Although I’m not confident that anyone can be an expert in a movement so elusive, something in a state of continual definition and redefinition, I would suggest that I have experienced more genres of the movement than most. From pickle-eating (a common ASMR trigger made famous by the US ASMRtist Spirit Payton, also known as ‘The Pickle Queen’) and mukbang (also known as meokbang, a variant of ASMR born in South Korea in the early 2010s typically involving a host live-streaming themselves eating copious amounts of food), to ear licking and ASMR activism, the audio-visual world that defines ASMR is both burgeoning from within and belittled by those sceptically looking on. Given this, I continuously ask myself: what lends this world its transcendental appeal? The most popular ASMR videos have millions upon millions of views, appearing to go beyond culture and language in favour of bodily ‘feels.’ In the decade since the term was coined and then entered the popular lexicon, there has been an urge among some to explain the sensation(s) rationally and in concrete terms. This is something that I have never understood. Not only is there risk in over-intellectualising, as you might justly claim that I am complicit in by writing this essay, but the origins of ASMR are more ambiguous than most narratives claim.
CHILD OF THE INTERNET
The movement is a child of the internet. Sometime in 2007, user okaywhatever51838 opened a thread on a US online health forum called Steady Health titled ‘WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD.’2 The message board exploded with international commenters who, to their delight, shared commonalities with this user’s own sensorial experience of the material world around them. A world in which unexpected sounds could trigger unprovoked bodily responses, where a closeness to objects and material culture opened up an entirely new realm of feeling. The opening comment on the thread, which remains one of the best descriptions of ASMR yet, read as follows:
i get this sensation sometimes. theres no real trigger for it. it just happens randomly. its been happening since i was a kid and i’m 21 now. some examples of what it seems has caused it to happen before are as a child while watching a puppet show and when i was being read a story to. as a teenager when a classmate did me a favour and when a friend drew on the palm of my hand with markers. sometimes it happens for no reason at all that i can tell, though. i’ll just be sitting or whatever doing whatever and it happens. its like in my head and all over my body. if i get an itch when i’m experiencing the sensation i won’t scratch it cause the itch helps intensify it. i also like to trace my fingers along my skin because it feels good when experiencing the sensation. sometimes my eyes will water. when the sensation is over i will sometimes feel nauseous, but not that bad. just a slight hint of nausea. what is it?? i’m not complaining cause i love it, but i’m just wondering what it might be… help.
Brimming with vulnerability that only anonymity can allow for, the explosion of comments in response overflowed into a second thread titled ‘WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD – PART 2.’ This was discovered by Jennifer Allen – the person who would later become a founding organiser of the movement, consolidated as part of asmr-research.org (now defunct). It was Allen who, in 2009, coined the term that we use today. In a 2016 interview with Craig Richard, a co-author of the first brain scan study exploring ASMR and editor of asmruniversity.com, Allen shed light on why she chose to put words to this feeling:
I knew with something as difficult to describe and as sensitive for people to open up about as ASMR that we would need something that objectively and definitively named the sensation. Using a ‘clinical’ word was the best option to improve how the burgeoning community would feel about using and telling others about the word.3
Today, any and every definition of ASMR is contested. For experiencers within the community, the existence of this spectrum of sensations is a physiological fact. Others consider it to be little more than a dubious trend that will, in time, disperse or be replaced. Although I have attempted to define ASMR myself,4 I prefer to explain it more succinctly: as a movement, or a culture, or a creative field, or all of the aforementioned combined, that mediates between mind and body. This description leans into the inherent ambiguity of the sensation, leaving room for interpretation and evolution. It addresses, I would hope, the fact that an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is, paradoxically, impossible to put into words – and that, for now, we do not necessarily need to try.
BETWEEN BODY AND MIND
As curator of the exhibition WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD at ArkDes in Stockholm, the first museum exhibition to explore ASMR, I have grappled with translation between Swedish and English. Having taken its first steps online and within an anglo-centric community, very few terms that have been specifically developed by the movement have been translated into other languages. (There is, incidentally, no true word in Swedish for the English word ‘sensation.’) ‘Design that mediates between mind and body’ has become design som pendlar mellan det kroppsliga och själsliga in Swedish – the word of interest being pendla, which, directly translated, is to commute, oscillate or seesaw. Although both words harbour different meanings and are used in different ways colloquially, they both infer transference; that something – be it a concept, a feeling, a current of energy or a twinge of the nerves – is not static, and that flows.
There are a number of creative fields that mediate between body and mind – experiences that are neither entirely intellectual, nor purely bodily. Some argue that the sensations felt as part of an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response might be similar to frisson: intense aesthetic chills felt as an orchestral piece reaches crescendo, for instance, or the experience of a great work of art. I can attest to this: bear with me. When, in 2019, I visited an exhibition of the work of Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, I was spellbound. As a close friend and I wound our way up the aptly conch-like ramp for which the building is world-renowned, a sequence of mysterious, almost spiritual paintings unfolded before us. I had seen some of the works in Stockholm, and yet here something felt profoundly different. Surrounded by works that were windows into far-away worlds, I peered down from the edge of the balcony to face the sprawling, spiralling journey that we had taken. In the serene calmness, my arms prickled with goosebumps. A chill shot up my spine, provoked by the humbling sight and the emotional weight of these worlds and my relationship to them in space.
BRUSHING, SCRATCHING, STIPPLING
Experiences such as this make it clear to me that ASMR belongs to a sphere of unexplained sensations that are more primal and far older than the World Wide Web. While it is clear that a whirlwind of recent technologies – hyper-connectivity, smartphones, binaural microphones – have enabled the community and culture to consolidate and grow, a softly whispering voice, a commonly deployed trigger for ASMR, has balmed and calmed souls since time immemorial. Repetitive actions, such as tapping or brushing or stroking or scratching are, in a similar way, instinctively meditative. Each and every one of us responds, to a greater or lesser degree, to gestures that are gentle.
Works that can trigger a response can be divided into two broad, often overlapping categories: ASMR that is intentional, created by an ASMRtist specifically to provoke a response, and ASMR that is unintentional. The latter is particularly ambivalent, not least because there is no such thing as an objective trigger. Among the most cited examples of unintentional ASMR is one dominant figure: the American painting instructor and television host Bob Ross. The Joy of Painting aired on PBS Services in the US from 1983 to 1994. It was and is considered a watershed in popular television culture. Each episode, less than thirty minutes in length, aims for little else than to transport the viewer to the world of Ross’ imagination: a place of scenic landscapes reminiscent of the artist’s own time spent between Florida, his home state, and Alaska, where he spent many years of his military service.
The appeal of Bob Ross and his titular role as the ‘Godfather of ASMR’ is, in many ways, self-evident. Ross brushes, dabs and stipples paint, scratching with a palette knife to sculpt the sides of mountains. Each of these are triggers found throughout the genre of intentional ASMR. Task-oriented actions are common too; watching an empty canvas gradually fill with a picturesque scene is, for many, calming and rewarding. Since 2014, when episodes were first uploaded to Twitch and YouTube, a new wave of fans across the world have discovered Ross – his iconic perm and dulcet tones. (As of today, the official Bob Ross YouTube channel has more than 4.1 million subscribers and counting.) This new audience is largely digitally-native, born into a noisy world in which quietude can feel impossibly nostalgic.
Accounting for the success of Bob Ross cannot be limited to tangible triggers alone. His gentle tone of voice and calm demeanour have enchanted audiences from pre-millennium through to today. His personality, defined by softly spoken words and positive affirmation, is profoundly comforting. The set features only an easel and painter’s tools, foregrounded against an empty, black backdrop: a quiet, focussed space for intimacy to form between the presenter and viewer. It could be argued that this set has inspired countless ASMRtists working today, who transform their homes into makeshift studios with green screens, acoustic dampers and lighting rigs that focus attention on their own faces and hands. This channels into the human need for a space of no judgment – for softness, kindness and generosity.
ATTENTION INDUCED ORGASM
Prior to Allen coining the term in 2009, there were a number of earlier attempts. A close forerunner to ASMR was ‘Attention Induced Orgasm,’ but it did not stick. Another – ‘braingasm’ – is still in use, but not necessarily by the community proper. For some, the suffix ‘-gasm’ is loaded; for Allen in particular, the word was far from helpful in her ambition to take ASMR into more of the mainstream and to allow others to associate their own feelings without prejudice. The majority of active members in the community vehemently deny that there is a sexual facet to ASMR, refusing to draw parallels to the states of mind and sensations experienced during sex. In the present void of research about the physiological effects of ASMR on the body and the brain, it’s impossible, for now, to completely refute or accept this argument.
What can be said, perhaps, is this: intimacy, and all that burdens it, is similar to both ASMR and orgasm. In each case, overwhelming and uncontrollable full-body sensations, often stimulated by an extra-bodily source, are involved. Both are physiological and intellectual; we have, after all, one unified nervous system. When looking at pornography there is trend data to obliquely draw upon, too. As I write this essay, there are close to ten thousand heterosexual porn videos tagged as ‘ASMR’ on PornHub. On PornHub Gay, there are a little over five hundred, although I’m at a loss as to what PornHub defines as ‘gay.’ According to PornHub, ‘ASMR’ ranks 4,591st for daily searches, roughly equal in popularity to searches for ‘sextape,’ ‘waitress,’ ‘male stripper’ and ‘hunky.’ The recent increase in intrigue prompted the site to state that ASMR had ‘made the list of searches that defined 2019,’5 describing the movement as ‘such a controversial fetish that people don’t even believe it exists.’ It seems that there is a willing audience, or curiosity, for ASMR that is explicitly sexual. Or at least, as Dr Laurie Betito, a clinical psychologist connected to PornHub’s Sexual Wellness Centre, notes: ‘people want to be transported to another state of mind, not just by images, but also sounds.’
If, by making space for close-looking and close-listening, ASMR changes why we use the internet – away from information consumption and towards softer experiences – could it also influence how we seek sexual gratification online? ASMR role play is one area in which the overlap with pornography is clear: the ASMRtist is often care worker or figure of authority – a doctor, nurse, dentist, librarian ormasseuse – and, increasingly, romantic partner. Here, the role of the camera is intensified: aligning with the perspective of the viewer, who becomes the significant other. The ASMRtist might be sprawled on a bed, welcoming you home from a long day at work. Speaking softly and seductively, they respond with considered pauses, offering you their undivided attention. In the vast majority of cases there is no sexual act, or overt insinuations. These ASMR experiences are more sensual than sexual. Some even provide something unattainable IRL.
In its effort to provide care where it might be needed most, is role play among the purest aspects of ASMR? To what extent is it similar to online sex work or connected to the history of cam-sex? (For an in-depth examination of this question, I recommend Helga Sadowski’s Digital Intimacies: Doing Digital Media Differently that was published in 2016.) The sexualised webcam, a precursor to the technologies that have helped to enable the ASMR movement in its current manifestation, demands nothing from the viewer but their attention, their desires and their cash. Cultural critic and author Huw Lemmey summarises the ambiguous balance between ASMR and the platforms it inhabits in different ways, suggesting that ‘the line between the two can be blurry, with websites like YouTube hosting non-explicit but highly sexualised ASMR videos while sites like PornHub offer ASMR videos that build in a lot of non-explicit content.’ It would be wrong, he argues, ‘to suggest that ASMR is offering sexual thrills to listeners; rather it offers something else missing from people’s lives today – emotional intimacy and focused care.’6
In order to make sense of the ambiguity, we must consider intention: that of the ASMRtist on the one hand, and that of the ASMR experiencer on the other. For Dr Craig Richard, the aforementioned biopharmaceutical scientist, the difference is clear. ‘It’s like yoga videos,’ he argues. ‘There you will see a young, fit, attractive person, scantily clad, writhing on a mat. We know that yoga is not about sexual arousal; that’s not the purpose, nor the goal, nor the intention. But you can watch that video and become sexually aroused because it still has sexual triggers in it.’ I have yet to find someone describe Bob Ross or The Joy of Painting as pornographic, let alone sexually arousing. And yet, by this argument, the abstract triggers that are fundamental to the success of the television programme – kindness, empathy, warmth, affirmation – overlap. Ross, like an ASMRtist in a boyfriend/girlfriend role-play work, pays attention. They listen, and there is no social pressure for you to respond.
EXAMINING AN IDEA
ASMR is effectively intimate, which, albeit difficult to define, is different to what could be described as explicit intimacy. The intentions underpinning the creation of a work of ASMR are different to the intentions underpinning pornography, but that’s not to say there are not instances and contexts in which the demarcation between the two blurs. Many people who create and consume ASMR simply seek a meaningful connection with another person. The proximity between ASMRtist and ASMR experiencer exists outside many of the social demands of the ‘real world.’ This is, perhaps, a core tenet of a new emotional economy of care that exists almost exclusively online that offers intimacy in return for trust, empathy in return for vulnerability and comfort in return for commitment.
In ‘The Uses of the Erotics: The Erotic as Power,’ a paper first delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts on 25 August 1978, Audre Lorde argues for the empowerment that can be found within and harnessed through the erotic. ‘Pornography emphasises sensation without feeling,’ she asserts. As the ‘direct denial of the power of the erotic, it represents the suppression of true feeling.’ For Lorde, the erotic functions in several ways:
…the first being in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.
ASMR, a movement that only someone of Lorde’s piercing insight could have envisioned before the advent of the internet, offers a way to understand how to practise close-feeling. If IRL intimacy is comparable to the erotic, perhaps effective intimacy could be considered a stepping stone towards a new basis for understanding and connection. The erotic, Lorde argues, ‘cannot be felt secondhand.’
For a long time and even after the coining of the term, ASMR was not discussed. It was unmentionable, I suppose, largely because it felt abnormal. It took transglobal technology to incite a group of people to understand that they are alone, but together. This moment, laden with vulnerabilities proffered by myriad individuals, marked the beginning of a cultural movement.
To borrow the words of the Reverend Fred Rogers – puppeteer, musician and gentle host of the cult children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood – said to Charlie Rose in 1994: ‘I’m very concerned that our society is much more interested in information than wonder. In noise, rather than silence.’7 Each of us, not of our own fault, have been born into an unimaginably complex world. Just take a moment to appreciate the complexity of our societies, the social demands placed on us from early childhood, and the impact of frictionless connectivity on our states of mind. The very thought of navigating all of this is, for even the bravest among is, a daunting prospect. Does ASMR embody a solution to a problem that we do not yet understand, or is it a response to an urgency of which we are not yet fully aware? If ASMR is filling a hole; placating loneliness, we must ask what has created a void in the first place. All I do know is that:
‘Oh, my. This is a noisy world.’
-– Revd Fred Rogers (1994)