Simple sounds help soothe a country in need of sleep
The video begins with the host whispering an apology for the camera settings — in particular, how the sharpness makes her nose seem super shiny. For the next hour, she says almost nothing else besides barely audible introductions. Instead, she takes her audience through a series of eight sounds selected to help listeners sleep, from the surprisingly soothing crinkle of latex gloves to the relaxing rubbing of a small cotton pillow. If you weren’t feeling sleepy before the video, you certainly are by its end — not from boredom, but from the pure pleasure of it all, the experience amounting to an auditory massage of the mind.
Dana ASMR is one of the most popular Korean producers of ASMR videos on YouTube. Her “8 Triggers to Help you Sleep” has garnered over 6 million views and over 4,700 comments at the time of writing. Her videos, mostly in Korean, but with some in English, share with audiences the ambient sounds of many of life’s experiences, be it eating, getting your ears cleaned or playing with multicolored slime. All aim to relax the listener, to “trigger” a tangible sense of relaxation and joy, a “tingle” that soothes life’s stresses and unplugs us, if for just a moment, from the pressures of the day.
ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, has taken Korea by storm. ASMR is a sensation described as a pleasurable tingling sensation that begins at the head and moves down to your upper spine, often triggered by particular sounds, though sights and other sensory stimuli sometimes do the trick, too. In a country as overworked, over-connected and chronically sleep deprived as Korea, many see ASMR-related content as an expedient way to relax, to give their brains a much needed break. Though largely a new media phenomenon, it’s not just YouTubers who are riding the ASMR wave. Traditional media such as television and even advertisers are catching on, too, integrating ASMR elements into their productions, too.
The tingle of euphoria
Cybersecurity expert Jennifer Allen coined the term ASMR back in 2010, giving an official — or official-sounding — name to an experience observers had previously called “head orgasms,” “head tingles” and “attention-induced euphoria,” among other terms. The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response Group, founded by Allen in 2010, defines ASMR as “a pleasant, often intense tingling sensation that begins in the head and travels down the body to varying extents. It is often accompanied by a euphoric feeling, and can overwhelm the experiencer of a particularly strong ASMR event.”
Though you can experience this sensation through uncontrolled external stimulus, you can also initiate it through conscious thought triggers, the most common being ASMR-inducing videos on YouTube.
Not everyone experiences ASMR, and what sets it off in those who do is as diverse as the ocean is wide. As Harry Cheadle writes in VICE, “It’s not usually sexual — everyone who talked to me about ASMR mentioned that right off the bat — but like sexual turn-ons, different people have different things that set them off: the sound of lips smacking together, a cashier’s fake nails tapping on the register, your friend drawing on your hand with a marker.”
Though scientific research on this pop culture phenomenon is but in its infancy, early research is turning up some interesting possibilities. “Neuroscientists are now experimenting with fMRIs and electroencephalography to see if the brains of ‘tingleheads,’ as they are called, are any different than those who don’t tremble at the sight of napkin-folding,” writes Libby Copeland at Smithsonian.com. “So far there are intriguing — if limited — findings suggesting that ASMR may relieve some people’s symptoms of stress and insomnia, and that the brains of those who experience it may be organized a little differently.”
In fact, some researchers posit that ASMR may be related to, or at least similar to, synesthesia, a condition in which people process sensory information in an unusual way, seeing colors in letters or numbers or tasting shapes. A University of Winnipeg study suggested those who experience ASMR are more likely to be creative, though also more prone to anxiety and mood swings.
From ear cleaning to mukbang
Video maker Miniyu helped pioneer ASMR in Korea when she opened up the country’s first ASMR-related YouTube channel in 2013. She now operates three channels with over 800 videos, some of which have been subtitled into English or Japanese. Her most popular channel, “Miniyu ASMR,” has over 460,000 subscribers. She has something for just about everyone, her videos running the gamut from tapping and scratching sounds to eating and “role play” videos. Her most popular video, a role play video in which she pretends to give the listener an ear cleaning, has been viewed nearly 4 million times.
ASMR has been especially big in the world of mukbang, videos in which the host or hosts binge eat to the audience’s delight. ASMR-focused mukbang videos contain very little talking. Instead, they focus on “eating sounds,” i.e., the sounds of biting, chewing and swallowing. For many people, this apparently gets the ASMR engines revving. Check out the YouTube channel of ASMR Suna, one of Korea’s hottest mukbang producers, to get a feel for the genre. Suna’s most popular video features her pet mini pig eating its way through, among other things, a watermelon slice. It’s been watched over 8.7 million times.
As ASMR catches on in YouTube and social media, more traditional media are integrating it into their programming, too. In the third season of tvN’s popular mukbang-themed program “Let’s Eat,” the characters spend an inordinate amount of on-screen time just eating with nary a word said. Channel A’s talent show “I’ll Give You the Universe” splices in relaxing, minimally shot scenes of the contestants enjoying the sounds of nature. In another example, tvN’s reality show “Little House In The Forest,” which features two celebrities living a off-grid in a cabin in the forest, is light on conversation and heavy on ambient sound, so much so that the show is seen as an extended mediation on ASMR itself.
Even advertisers are getting in on the act. Cosmetic brand Innisfree’s “I Use Hallan” campaign, a pair of commercials staring entertainer Hong Jin-kyung and Girl’s Generation member Yoona, focus on the relaxing sounds of the winter’s wind, a scribbling pencil, chirping birds, writing notes on a frosted window and, of course, makeup being applied. Foodstuff maker Pulmuone has also released an ASMR video of its own featuring webtoon illustrator Kim Sung preparing and eating a steaming bowl of yukgaejang kalguksu.
A remedy for a stressed-out, sleep-deprived society?
Observers say the interest in and demand for ASMR-related content is driven by the desire for less stimulation. In a world where social media, the 24-hour news cycle, Netflix and thousands of cable channels keep us perpetually stressed and stimulated, people are growing ever more desperate for ways to unplug. A 2016 survey by the OECD revealed that Koreans sleep just seven hours and 41 minutes a day on average, the fewest hours in the organization. It’s unsurprising, then, that poll after poll reveals that an overwhelming majority of Korean workers either suffer from or have experienced burnout syndrome, a condition characterized by exhaustion, job alienation and reduced performance.
Kim Heon-sik, a cultural critic, told the Herald Gyeongje daily, “Many phenomena arise from exhaustion.” He added, “I think there’s a lot of demand for ASMR-related content because people are exhausted from information. People are too tired. Isn’t there too much information and too much to do? This being the case, I wonder if it doesn’t create motivation to consume content that transmits no information and requires no analysis.”
Relatedly, you can also link ASMR to the so-called sohwakhaeng trend. The portmanteau, first coined by Japanese writer Murakami Haruki, means “small but certain happiness.” It points to the tiny pleasures that brighten your day, such as a refreshing summer breeze or a good cup of coffee. By giving sleep-deprived, “time-poor” people a chance to unwind, if but just for a few moments, ASMR brings a bit of simple happiness.
Written by Robert Koehler