When the human-technology system called technosphere is broken, it is the human-technology system that tries to fix it. Connecting people in intimate auditory ways over the internet is a way to provide therapy for the very kind of alienations and isolations that it helped to create in the first place. In a series of videos, texts and audio, artist Claire Tolan depicts the world of the ASMR subculture working to do just that.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) describes a tingling sensation in the scalp and the spine, a physiological response provoked by soft sounds, such as whispering, nail tapping, and hair brushing. In recent years, a massive YouTube subculture has grown around ASMR, sharing over two million videos that recombine the sounds in an incredible array of scenarios and soundscapes.
ASMR cohered as a phenomenon when its pseudo-scientific name was coined in a chat forum in the late 2000s. The name somehow lent the sensation a cogent, legitimate identity, which worked in tandem with the increasing sophistication of YouTube as a video-sharing platform. Early ASMR adopters posted videos in which they found tingling triggers, such as nature programs, cooking shows, and, perhaps most famously, Bob Ross’s instructional painting program. This shared found footage is known today as “unintentional ASMR,” and it remains foundational to the genre.
As the audience for ASMR grew, amateur videographers, soon to be called ASMRtists, began to produce new videos with the explicit intention of triggering ASMR. Intentional ASMR videos can be grouped into rough sub-genres. Many videos present monotonous, uninterrupted stretches of sound ‒ an hour of nails tapping, marbles rolling, and plant cleaning. Other videos feature the ASMRtist rambling about his day, showing off his new purchases, or sharing expert knowledge, sometimes while eating or drinking (these mouth sounds serve as superb triggers). In these videos, the ASMRtist speaks in a soft, breathy tone; the lack of urgency and the mundane or arcane language serves to hypnotize the viewer; the videos captivate, in part, because they bore. Importantly, there is security – as well as tingling – to be found in the droning sounds and voices. The viewer expects, and experiences, no surprises.
Other ASMR videos take the form of role-plays, with the ASMRtist playing a real estate agent, a dentist, a travel guide, a spa attendant, a fairy princess, an abducting alien. Spanning realistic, everyday scenarios through the significantly more fantastic, the videos invite the viewer into an intimate social relation, where the ASMRtist is, if not a familiar, in an authoritative or confidential role, leaning in close, then closer still to the camera.
Here, too, even in seemingly unsettling, “creepy” videos, there is no shock. The content might be strange, but the sounds delivered, and the voice that speaks, follow always the same soft, steady tones.
The security of this viewing experience, and the hypnosis induced by the monotony of the soundscape and slow visual cues, point to a secondary function of ASMR: many people do not experience the tingling response, but instead find the videos useful as relaxation aids, watching to ease anxiety, insomnia, and loneliness. Over the past half decade, ASMR has become a fringe community of coping, offering therapeutic aids to viewers who are stressed out, sleepless, or seeking an oasis of calm in the midst of endless, frenetic clicking, browsing, and multitasking. ASMR works to induce tingles or to spur relaxation only when the viewer gives the videos her full attention. The treatment of the videos demands this uninterrupted gaze. The videos make the viewer stop.
To think about ASMR’s relation to trauma and the technosphere, it is useful to index the kinds of estrangement that the videos facilitate via this arrest. There are many, but I find the most relevant and exciting to be social, environmental, and temporal.
Socially, there is something fantastic about the exchange between the viewer and the ASMRtist, whether the motivation is to trigger tingling or seek therapy. The ASMRtist’s task of delivering care/healing/tingling to viewers is remarkable, not only because of the lack of “AFK” familiarity between the viewer and the ASMRtist, but also because anyone with a computer (and a webcam) can fill the role of the viewer or the role of the ASMRtist. Just as anyone can watch ASMR, anyone can “make” ASMR too: no special talent required; you don’t even need sophisticated microphones. All that is necessary is a whisper, or even just an object – really, any object – and the imagination to create, with it, some type of ASMR-passing sound.
This has led to a massive movement of people both guiding others through and embarking upon extensive bouts of virtual role-playing as rituals of relaxation. The individual’s agency in these scenarios – choosing her role on both a meta-level (lead or be led?) and on a content-level (accountant or space travel agent?) – is of chief importance, especially when viewed in relation to trauma. Trauma cleaves the individual’s identity, in what Catherine Malabou calls destructive plasticity. Trauma makes the individual strange to herself, reformats her identity. I recognize this in me as much as I do in others. Post-trauma, I have witnessed the arrival of a mute lacuna, on either side of which two partitions of self – before and after – are chained, unbudging, and yet forever irreconcilable.
In the face of this deadlock, role-play is a tremendously useful tool, lending different imaginations of and realities for the self.
Rejuvenating feelings of agency, this play of self generates perspectives which might provide the post-traumatic self with more advanced strategies for coping, leading, eventually, to an unfreezing of most – if never all – of the self’s assets from the trauma.
Importantly, in ASMR, role-play always involves at least one other person. It is the task of the ASMRtist to make the play good enough to convince a viewer; likewise the viewer must place trust in the ASMRtist, agree to be captivated. Though the ASMRtist and the viewer are not in active conversation, the play is legitimated and heightened by this basic contract.
ASMR provides not only possibilities of different selves, but also of different environments. As someone making and watching ASMR content, my world has been redrawn, to consider a secondary function for every object that falls into my possession. In addition to an object’s intended use (can-opener, milk carton, toothbrush), now I consider how it might be instrumentalized to induce ASMR.
ASMR coaches the viewer to experience her everyday environment as an extension of the videos, even when the videos take the form of fantasy role-plays. It’s amazing: ASMR role-plays hypnotize with their escapist fantasy while at the same time the viewer is provided tools to understand that what remains post-fantasy is relaxing in itself.
I often tell the story of my friend who was captivated by a video of someone peeling oranges, and then, for weeks afterward, experienced a slight tingle every time she saw an orange. She was stuck with it; she was unstuck from typical patterns of sensory perception. And so in almost everything they encounter, ASMR aficionados begin to recognize objects and movements that could become spectacular to their senses, and by extension, to their bodies and brains. ASMR trains us to treat objects differently, to find the potential for soothing in any space we inhabit.
When the environment is reframed in this way, there is also a temporal shift. At the extreme, increased attention to objects, and the invention of different functions for objects, interrupts typical flows of time. Attention shifts, and with it, so does routine.
But, even more simply, the temporal shift can be considered like this: instead of spending the night awake worrying, the viewer gets a couple more hours of sleep; those hours of sleep, while not solving her problems, make the problems somehow easier to cope with.
Drawn in this way, ASMR’s plays of identity, environment, and time combine in an array of coping strategies for the viewer living with trauma, PTSD, and its attendant brutalities. This is especially important given the increasing number of victims of sociopolitical trauma. And it’s even more remarkable when considering that ASMRtists often begin as fans of the videos and graduate into making their own content. For those struggling with the depression, anxiety, and confusion that come with trauma, this graduation from viewer to producer is an affective, beautiful, change of agency, and a great act of generosity: to re-animate the world, softly, slowly, for others, for strangers, with the simple intention of helping them to continue.