Hearing a bedtime story may still lull you to sleep as an adult, but it might help more if the reader whispers it. Or if they gently tap their foot, or just shuffle papers around for a few minutes. Confused? There’s a growing subculture of insomnia- and anxiety-plagued people who find solace in these kinds of repetitive sounds, a relaxation phenomenon known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).
ASMR is said to feel like a tingling sensation spreading over your head, typically moving down your spine and body, inducing total euphoria—so much so that the effect is often referred to as a brain orgasm. While scientific evidence is scant, the number of devotees is overwhelming: ASMR online groups and forums are flooded with stories of people suffering from unbearable and incurable anxiety or insomnia until they came across Bob Ross’ soothing voice on late night TV or heard pages gently turning in a library.
The ASMR Research & Support organization—who is trying to kick start scientific research on the phenomenon—puts sensation seekers two categories: Type A is relaxed by their own thoughts, like meditation. The more common Type B relies on something external to stimulate their euphoria, like listening to a pen scratch paper or a whispering voice (the latter is so common that ASMR is sometimes called Whisper Therapy).
While the list seems to cover just about every kind of non-abrasive noise, neurologist Steven Novella, M.D., points out on his site, NeuroLogicaBlog, that all ASMR triggers engage the same networks of the brain, the part of us that “interacts carefully and thoughtfully with our environment or with other people.” It’s possible that certain brains have neural hard wiring structured to respond to specific sounds with pleasure, he stipulates.
And thanks to the internet, sufferers can find relief with the oddest of soothers: YouTube boasts almost 3 million ASMR videos of people whispering, tapping, scratching, even role playing situations like eye exams and haircuts (personalized attention is a common calmer).
Ready to try it? Not everybody experiences the sensation, and people typically only respond to certain triggers. But if you have trouble sleeping or relaxing, try out a few of the most popular ASMRists (as they’re known) on YouTube, like Ilse of TheWaterWhispers and Maria of GentleWhispering. Both of these channels cover a range of triggers and, while some videos last upwards of 30 minutes, most ASMR enthusiasts report tingling after only a few minutes of concentrating on the sounds.