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What Is ASMR and Why Is It so Popular?

By Damon Orion


Exploring the “braingasm” phenomenon that has YouTube viewers buzzing.


It’s a known fact: YouTube is overrun with hyperactive vloggers. With all the subtlety and class of street corner shout-outs, they compete for your attention with over-the-top pranks, daredevil stunts, a shouty speaking style and loads of fake enthusiasm. Amid all this sensory overload, ASMR videos stand out like massage stalls at a heavy metal gig.


The creators of these intriguingly subdued videos—ASMRtists, as they're known—whisper or speak softly, and they carry out some of the most ordinary acts imaginable. For instance, you might see them rubbing the bristles of two hairbrushes together, rustling sweet wrappers or tapping their fingernails against items like microphones, plastic bowls or tea mugs.


On paper, that might seem as thrilling as nap time at a silent meditation retreat. So why are there 25 million ASMR channels on YouTube, and why do the top ASMRtists have literally millions of followers?


Well, we’re chuffed you asked. Let’s start with the obvious question…


What Is ASMR?


So, first off, what does ASMR stand for? It’s short for “autonomous sensory meridian response.” And that doesn’t really clarify much, so let’s hand over the question of “What is ASMR?” to Ilse Blansert, creator of the hugely popular YouTube ASMR channel TheWaterwhispers and co-author of the book ASMR: Idiot’s Guides.


“ASMR is a tingly sensation that typically starts at the top of your head and travels down through the entire nervous system, creating a pleasant, warm and tingly feeling that promotes sleep and relaxation,” Blansert explains. “I often describe it as 'goosebumps under the skin.'”


This sensation has been dubbed a “braingasm,” but most who are receptive to ASMR agree that it’s not a sexual sensation. The limited scientific data we have on the topic seems to support this: Most participants in ASMR research don’t exhibit signs of arousal, however.


ASMR is typically triggered by auditory or visual cues—like the sound of paper being rustled or the sight of someone doing a routine task such as cooking tea or folding towels. It can also be triggered in people receiving personal care like massages, haircuts or manicures. More rarely, it arises from one’s own focus, without external stimuli.


People from over 130 different countries report having had this experience, which occurs for an estimated 20% of the population. Survey results indicate that the majority of those receptive to ASMR are female, describe themselves as artistic or creative, and display high levels of introversion, neurosis and curiosity.


Why Is ASMR so Popular?


This unique niche has gained enough popularity to inspire Jeff Goldblum, Aubrey Plaza, Cardi B, Zoe Kravitz and several other celebrities to try their hand at the genre. There are even subgenres of ASMR videos like slime ASMR and roleplaying ASMR.


Collectively, ASMR videos have garnered as many as 65 billion views per year on YouTube. The most successful ASMRtists reportedly earn between £5,500 to £9,200 per month, with their videos attracting as many as 39 million viewers. As mentioned in this Ted talk by ASMR University founder and Brain Tingles author Dr. Craig Richard, some ASMR video channels have more followers than Kim Kardashian.


So, why is ASMR so popular?


“I believe ASMR content is hugely popular because it consistently helps millions who struggle with stress and sleep issues,” Dr. Richard tells Trends.


Blansert shares similar views on ASMR’s popularity. “Our brains are always on the go, and ASMR helps many to relax with various visuals and sounds,” she says.


Moreover, most who are prone to this phenomenon concur that it’s a fascinating sensation, often accompanied by feelings of euphoria. It’s also possible that ASMR offers a sense of care that's missing in today's world. As relatives of monkeys who groom each other, we’re hardwired to respond to signs of social connection and affection. Even if these signals are virtual, they can be crucial to our well-being.


The Brain and the Braingasm


Supporting this notion, increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with grooming and other social behaviours) has been observed during ASMR. This suggests a strong link between ASMR and social grooming (the good kind, where one monkey cleans another, fostering not just health but also bonding and safety).


“Receiving positive, personal attention, paired with gentle speaking, sounds, movements and touch, makes us feel safe and cared for,” says Dr. Richard, who co-authored an fMRI study of ASMR and was an investigator in the ASMR Research Project. “This likely results in a heightened release of oxytocin, a brain chemical known to induce comfort, calmness and relaxation.”


According to this research, it’s probable that in addition to oxytocin, neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin play a role in this phenomenon. Gene sequencing related to these brain chemicals might even determine if someone is receptive to ASMR or not. The same study found a potential link between ASMR receptivity and unusual neural connectivity in the brain's resting-state networks.


Physical signs of relaxation, improved sleep, enhanced focus and relief from depression, chronic pain, stress and anxiety have been observed in those who experience ASMR. Based on observations of physiological changes such as heart and breathing rates, researchers speculate that ASMR might offer the same relaxation and anti-anxiety benefits as mindfulness meditation.


Perhaps the most common non-recreational use of ASMR is for insomnia relief. To illustrate, 81% of participants in a 2015 study said they used ASMR at bedtime. ASMR podcasts can be particularly helpful for this, as they don’t require listeners to stare at a bright screen.


Blansert says ASMR helps her sleep and be more present. “Especially a few years ago, when I was dealing with C-PTSD, it helped me relax, overcome panic attacks and return to the present moment,” she shares.


Even for those who don’t get the tingle, these videos and podcasts can evoke a cosy, peaceful feeling—akin to sitting by a roaring fire with a purring cat on your lap as rain gently falls outside. This explains the vast community of non-ASMR-prone viewers who use ASMR for relaxation, stress relief, focus and better sleep.


So, who knows? Even if ASMR content doesn’t give you a braingasm, it might offer some relief from anxiety or insomnia … or at least a break after watching one too many loud vlogs.


Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for various publications. Read more of his work at

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