Bioethics Blogs

ASMR and Absurdity

by Hannah Maslen and Rebecca Roache

In the past five years or so, a new phenomenon has emerged on the internet. ASMR videos allow you to spend around 40 minutes watching someone carefully unpack and repack a box, or listen to a detailed demonstration of ten different notebooks, or observe the careful folding of several napkins. If you think this is something that almost nobody would want to do, think again: a search on the term ‘ASMR’ on YouTube returns over 1.4 million videos, the most popular of which has been viewed 11.7 million times.

What is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is the pseudo-scientific name of a phenomenon that, according to thousands of anecdotal reports, various news reports, and a recently published academic survey, loads of people experience. ASMR refers to a pleasant tingling sensation in response to certain visual and/or auditory stimuli. Common triggers include the kind of close personal attention you get when someone cuts your hair, certain sounds like tapping or brushing, and perhaps most bizarrely of all, observing someone doing something trivial very carefully and diligently.

Here is an example from Maria, YouTube’s most popular ‘ASMRtist’:

 

This might seem like a modern fad; the sort of thing that would not exist without the internet. However, whilst the terminology and the online world of ASMR are very recent, there exist much earlier descriptions of it. In a recent article about ASMR, the Austrian writer Clemens Setz notes that the following passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway appears to refer to the experience:

‘K… R…’ said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say ‘Kay Arr’ close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.