Science //

Sounds nice, feels nice

The internet is bringing together a peculiar breed of sound aficionados, whispers Felicity Nelson.


Gentle whispers, the crunch of snow under your boots, the rustling of paper, the tapping of fingernails on a desk or the sound of rain – some sounds just feel good. For a few, very lucky people with ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), these delicious sounds can actually trigger a ‘relaxation high’ characterised by intensely pleasurable brain tingles. As for the rest of us, well, apparently we’re missing out.

If you are in the habit of diving down rabbit holes on Youtube or Reddit, you may have already come across videos designed to trigger ASMR. Such videos usually feature young women whispering intimately in a slight foreign accent and paying close attention to a repetitive task. It is difficult for someone who doesn’t experience ASMR to understand why these impossibly dull and slightly unnerving videos have hundreds of thousands of views. Yet ASMR videos have become a profitable cottage industry, and Youtube artists popular with ASMRers now have upwards of 100,000 subscribers.

Before Internet chat rooms brought the disparate ASMR community together, people mostly kept these trance-like states of ecstasy to themselves. Until I told my twin sister I was writing this article, I had no idea that she was a whisper connoisseur.

Most experienced the tingles since childhood and assumed everyone had it. Some had very personal triggers. My sister finds answering IQ and personality tests sparks the tingles. “Even answering these questions is doing it!” she says. “I’m triggered by soft, accented speech, watching somebody do something methodically (like performing a tea ceremony) and just, random ambient sounds, sometimes a quiet library will do it,” another friend told me.

The spread of the internet has allowed ASMRers to form communities on Facebook and similar websites.“[ASMR] feels like… my whole body pleasantly humming. I used to call it the “tingly hood” before there was a name for it,” says Kristen Bebelaar, from New York. Another American, Serena Michelle, described ASMR as “waves of intense love without a sexual connotation”. Marysa Murceli described a “fizzy feeling” from the sounds of jelly beans (whatever that means) as well as the clicker clatter of keyboards. Her favourite Youtube artist is Lilliwhispers: “She is amazing, her very strong American accent (I am French) and the way she whispers while chewing gum … she is so focused on what she does in the video. I’ve watched two of her videos every single night for a year and a half now.”

To date, no scientific study has been done to determine what ASMR is and why people have it. Theories range from ASMR being an odd fetish of an over-sensitive minority to a hangover from early childhood as a response to the soothing sound of a mother’s voice.

Often ASMRers are quite hesitant to talk about their tingles. They shouldn’t be; their access to such a perfect, free and harmless happy-drug is enviable. “The community itself can seem a bit weird I know,” says Chloe, another American. “But in the end it’s people helping other people relax and feel good, like giving someone a hot cup or tea or a massage. And that’s a pretty lovely thing when you think about it.”