It’s hard to be a human in 2019. We started the millennium with mildly hopeful, if slightly naive expectations: this Internet thing is getting real big! We’re becoming a global community! Maybe we can put an end to war, if everyone in the world’s conflict zones learns how to send each other emails. Then 9/11 and the financial crash and Brexit happened, and now the techno-optimists are left scratching their heads, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. We’re living in a different age now, and what was once unthinkable has become normal. Yes, in many ways, this is not a good thing. For example, while watching the historic inauguration of Barack Obama—a charming, clean-cut symbol of everything America was supposed to be—one could hardly imagine the monstrous sleazeball who would be next to take the oath. But maybe, in some perverse way, we can find some positive in the dramatic reversal of our expectations. Obama, after all, turned out to be little more than an attractive gloss painted over worm-infested walls; the Nobel Peace Prize he won just nine months into his first term, for the promotion of denuclearization and a “new climate” in international relations, was followed up by seven years of frustration and disappointments. 2008 was the year we convinced ourselves we could cure society’s ills with TED Talks and sophistication. 2019, by contrast, is visceral. Everyone is screaming, all the time. The planet is hot. The president is messy. Strangers on the internet are constantly trying to tell you how lonely, angry, and sexually aroused they are. But if there’s a silver lining to be gleaned from this never-ending horror, it’s that we seem to be finally accepting that we are both human beings and animals. This is a fact we’ve been deluding ourselves about for quite some time, tamping down our raw, disgusting instincts in favor of water-cooler chat about the latest Aaron Sorkin show.
Now, it just feels too damn difficult to keep up the pretense, and people are getting ready to be honest. There’s still dishonesty, of course: people pretend to be civil on TV news as they discuss whether it would be better to bomb Iran or starve it. People on Instagram pretend to be happy on Caribbean beaches. Nieces smile and nod as their uncles explain that Nancy Pelosi is in the pocket of MS-13. But a lot of people are very slowly coming to admit their shameful humanity, and how ill-served it is by the systems they live under. Even when it’s negotiated through layers of irony and media savvy, people online—and increasingly offline—seem to be in some phase of confession. We all want to tell each other things, suddenly; we are more ready to admit that something’s wrong, and our apps aren’t fixing it. So what’s missing in our lives, as we trudge through the 21st century? What did we lose between seasons of Mad Men?
You don’t have to be a hemp-wearing hippie to feel like people are suffering from their inability to be in touch with the sensual—not sensual as in sexual, necessarily, but as in pleasing to the senses. Most people no longer live surrounded by nature, or have the time or inclination to crunch a leaf between their fingers, breathe in every note of their coffee, or lie out and look up for an hour at the stars, not when there are so many other things competing for our attention. (And depending on where you live, maybe it’s too polluted to even see the stars anymore. The difference between the night sky at the more rural end of my hometown, and the night sky in the city in which I live, is frightening to me.) Between notifications and deadlines and emails, everything can come to feel a little flattened, deadened; everything is received through a screen. Sensuality has gone missing somewhere in our rush to embrace technology, and people are starting to feel the emptiness it’s left behind. Outside of sex, it is considered vaguely abnormal to think or comment too much on how things physically feel; indeed, it can feel as though sexuality is the only lens through which we can see physical pleasure. (Talk to a group of people about how much you like the sensation of kneading dough, and see how long it takes before someone makes a joke implying you’re some sort of bread pervert). But aren’t we physical beings? Is it wrong to have a body and a mind that are connected, to want to seek some sort of stimulus?
Which brings me to ASMR.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a term popularized somewhere around the late 2000s and early 2010s. The term refers to a phenomenon whereby some people feel a pleasurable tingly sensation – particularly around their head, neck and down their spine – in response to certain stimuli. Not everyone gets it, but if you’ve ever felt a wave of inexplicable tingles when someone cuts your hair, or when you hear the rustling of a newspaper, you might be someone who experiences ASMR. Those who feel it report that they find it relaxing, that it helps them sleep, or even describe it as euphoric – myself, I find it’s somewhat comparable to the feeling you get by using one of those cheap head massagers that look like big metal spiders. In the last decade, a whole genre has sprung up on YouTube of videos dedicated to triggering people’s ASMR, in a huge variety of weird and delightful ways. (If you’re not familiar with this genre, you might want to look it up, so you feel very slightly less confused by my descriptions.) At their most basic, these videos are simple sound collages, featuring the tapping of glasses, quiet whisperings of book readings, the turning of pages—sounds which might not seem so strange to call relaxing, even if you’re not familiar with ASMR. Many involve the creators—or “ASMRtists,” as they’re known – whispering directly to the viewer, as whispering is a big ASMR trigger for most fans, or interacting with the viewer while playing the part of a doctor, hairdresser, or any other position that involves getting close to people and making sound near their ears. And some videos are more…adventurous. Can’t sleep? Why not pop on some headphones and watch a video where someone pretends to be your intergalactic travel agent, rambling quietly to you about their popular tours around the rings of Saturn? How about a roleplay where someone pretends you are a houseplant? Or an hour-long medical examination of a melon, performed by a medieval plague doctor? There’s almost a tacit competition among ASMRtists to create the strangest, most imaginative videos that trigger people’s ASMR, and it’s wonderful.
When first encountering ASMR, a lot of people’s reaction is to assume it’s a sexual fetish. They will point to the fact that a lot of popular ASMRtists are attractive young women, which is a bit like saying music must be a fetish because a lot of popular singers are attractive young women. The terminology used for different types of video can sound odd and vaguely pornographic: personal attention, roleplay, mouth sounds. And the whole thing just feels like it’s somehow breaking a taboo. You’re not supposed to have someone speaking softly in your ear, unless you earned that right in real life by making someone like you enough to become your sexual partner. It’s not allowed! ASMRtists often play on screen with children’s toys like slime, or even objects found in the back of their closets that they think might give people tingles, regressing to a form of kinaesthetic play which adults generally aren’t supposed to participate in. (When adults have non-sexual toys, they have to keep them on their desks and label them “stress balls,” nothing more than a tool for displacing misery.) In ASMR roleplays, one can find the renewed pleasure of imaginary games—the ASMRtist might take the role of an old-timey apothecary mixing up a mysterious tincture for you, or an engineer fitting you with a robotic arm. One of the most common types of roleplay is of ASMRtists pretending to do your makeup, echoing the rituals enjoyed by countless preteen girls, who have been brushing horrendous pink eyeshadow over their friends’ eyelids for decades. People are rediscovering what we so often forget after the ravages of adolescence—that play, and intimacy, and physical elation, have a place in human life beyond the box marked ‘sex’. Seven or eight years ago, when I discovered ASMR, most people didn’t talk about it. Now it’s getting a place in the mainstream. It’s getting less and less embarrassing to say “yes, I too experience bodily pleasure in response to the cornucopia of objects and textures around us.” It’s getting less shameful to be a human.
Another reaction people sometimes have to ASMR—once they’ve got over the initial weirdness of it all, and have accepted it might not be a sex thing—is to ask the question: Is it not at all, well… a bit sad? Why do you need a stranger to whisper to you? Isn’t it a replacement for real-life intimacy? And I admit, I understand that concern. I have written before in this magazine about the dangers of using ”self-care” practices to soothe ourselves in the face of deep-seated societal problems, rather than taking it upon ourselves to actually solve those problems. I’ve no doubt that somewhere out there, there’s at least one lovelorn recluse who has convinced themselves an ASMRtist is their soulmate, much as lovelorn recluses have convinced themselves that actors and anime characters and duchesses are their soulmates since time immemorial. ASMR videos are not a replacement for real life interpersonal relationships. What they are doing, however, is opening a door. They are starting a conversation. ASMR has radically altered the conventional wisdom on how sensible adults experience joy.
Joy is not a word you come across much in politics or culture anymore. It has a vague air of naivety, of old-fashionedness; joy is what a schoolboy feels when he gets an extra helping of custard in a children’s novel from the 1920s. For an adult in 2019, a good life is supposed to be that which makes you fulfilled, where your goals are achieved and your retirement is secure. In between meeting those targets you might have fun at a party, or be entertained by a TV show, but heaven forbid you play, unless by ‘play’ you mean either a game with defined rules, or some euphemism for theoretically-naughty-but-basically-socially-acceptable adult activities. To express too much joy, outside of the proper contexts, is often labelled eccentric at best and deviant at worst. But ASMR is changing that. Whether the naysayers like it or not, it is becoming okay for an adult human to unwind by watching forty-five minutes of a pretend eye exam. It’s okay for an adult human to love sound and sight and imagination, and not just in the work of movie directors but in the frivolous, small-scale experiments of Youtube creators with a passion for exploiting the weird glitches of the nervous system. In these pioneers, I see an echo of a child’s spirit; the spirit that, upon seeing a really big, solid stick on a countryside walk, urges you to pick it up and carry it around, and hit it against bushes and trees and the ground to see what sound it makes. We’re starting to experiment with what it means to live in our own bodies – first in the privacy of our own browser history, then slowly but surely telling other people. We’re getting over the curse of our needless inhibitions. It’s not a secret any more.
I’m human. I like to feel tingles. And I am not ashamed.
This article was originally published in the January – February issue of Current Affairs.
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