The real reason we love ASMR so much
ASMR mimics our earliest experiences of being cared for by our parents.
Every night before falling asleep, millions of us are watching videos of people whispering and pretending to stroke our faces. Even if you don't watch the videos yourself, you're likely familiar with the phenomenon of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) -- whereby light taps and hushed tones elicit “brain tingles” that feel like the chills you get when someone plays with your hair or traces your back with their fingertips. As the loneliest generation in the UK, it is perhaps no surprise that young people are finding a remedy in this new genre of companionship content.
ASMR is a modern phenomenon. On YouTube it generates more search interest than the words "candy" or "chocolate" -- despite the vast popularity of food content online. Its viewers are roughly split between genders, and can be found across the world. However, there is one demographic that consumes noticeably more ASMR content than any other: 18 to 24-year-olds. This six-year age group makes up half of its audience.
This is certainly true of popular West Sussex based "ASMRtist" Ruby True, who has over 123,000 followers across Twitch, Instagram and YouTube, the majority of which are 20-somethings. Ruby, who embodies the style and energy of an other-worldly pixie, describes herself as “a creative, compassionate creator with a huge interest in how the content we watch can change how we feel.” She combines popular ASMR tropes like the girlfriend roleplay with less conventional fantasy elements, for example ‘Waking up next to your Viking girlfriend’ and ‘Positive affirmations ASMR Valentine's Cherub of self love’. She tells me she found ASMR after being in a deep depression and suffering from crippling anxiety: “I had got to the point of no hope and was just living for the sake of living," Ruby says.
"I was streaming games at the time on Twitch and my community kept telling me about ASMR and I would be great for it, so I gave it a go and -- OMG -- my life changed.” Now, Ruby believes young people seek her out because watching her videos “creates a sense of community.” At a time when “flaking” culture is rife -- where we find ourselves cancelling plans last minute for the shimmering allure of Netflix and a night in -- ASMR can be a more reliable way to satisfy cravings for closeness without actually having to seek it out IRL.
Unlike other forms of online content that can promote feelings of social isolation (like scrolling through the Insta feeds of impossibly beautiful, FaceTuned celebrities), ASMR can actually boost positive wellbeing. Dr Emma Gray is a clinical psychologist at the forefront of researching the therapeutic potential of this medium. Within the online community, she's even become known as ‘The ASMR Psychologist’. “ASMR leads to the release of oxytocin, the brain chemical that facilitates bonding and trust”, Emma says. For a generation who feel that social media has created more distance between friends, ASMR is emerging as the uncomfortable answer to a question that’s preoccupying so much of Gen Z’s time: how can I stop feeling so lonely?
Bonding and comfort can be hard to come by for young people. Studies show the majority of recent grads feel like they have fewer friends in their 20s. For 22-year-old ASMR fan Emilia, moving home after university meant losing the supportive network she’d relied on for the past few years. “My uni friends and I got into habits of saying how much we loved each other, but there is less of that culture in my family home.” Emilia found that ASMR helped replace the encouragement her close friendships once offered. “If my mind enters a dark place, videos with positive affirmations help me feel better about myself during lonely moments.”
For the upper-end of Gen Z -- many of whom are trying to move out of home but have been priced out of major cities or are only able to afford shoebox rooms -- maintaining friendships and finding a sense of community is hard. Feeling cared for, even if it’s by a stranger on a screen, can be a powerful antidote to this isolation. The ASMR Psychologist’s research, largely carried out using the polls in her community section on her YouTube channel, show that 60% of people watch ASMR because they are looking for “comfort”. Part of this, Emma says, is its link to childhood. “ASMR mimics our earliest experiences of being cared for by our parents,” Emma says.
People have always turned to audio for companionship; that’s nothing new. TV is the “main source of company” for 40 per cent of older people in the UK. But what is new about this particular medium is the intensity of it. TV and radio are one-way experiences; you’re a listener, overhearing a conversation. With ASMR, you’re experiencing a physiological sensation that people have likened to being touched. The live stream feature on platforms like Twitch allows content creators like Ruby to interact directly with viewers. She can see who’s watching and recognises regulars: “I can have conversations with my community and welcome them in,” she says.
What we can't know for sure is the long-term effects of mimicking human contact with ASMR. The science around it may be in its infancy, but Dr Gray believes the outlook is ultimately a positive one. "Loneliness is a common symptom of an insecure attachment," she says. "ASMR could help people suffering from loneliness to feel connected, calm and cared for in the short term, as it triggers the release of endorphins, GABA, serotonin and oxytocin, which facilitate these feelings.” Her belief is that combining ASMR with psychological strategies “could help people form fulfilling relationships over the longer term.”
Clearly, ASMR cannot “solve” the loneliness epidemic facing young people: improvements in living accommodation, better mental health services, and more widespread living wages would all have greater impacts. But it is a practical tool that is soothing many in moments of isolation. Each time we find ourselves cancelled-on last minute or with no money for a train ticket to visit friends, there’s no denying it can be of comfort. ASMR isn't just giving us tingles, it's helping us escape from the anxieties of young adulthood.