The Soft Bulletins
Could a one-hour video of someone whispering and brushing her hair change your life?
We open with a close-up of a young woman’s face, shot from below. She gazes downward into the camera, her light brown hair hanging so low as to almost touch the lens. Her eyes are wide with what seems a kind of maternal solicitousness. When she speaks, she does so very quietly and softly, with a mild European accent that is difficult to place. “Hey, sweetie,” she says. “Do you feel a little bit better?” She touches the lens—the viewer’s face, your face—with a gentle finger. “Yeah, you’re having a fever, hun. I just have a little bit of a wet towel. I’ll just put it on your cheeks a little bit, and your forehead, okay? Yeah? OK, sweetie?” She turns away from you for a moment, and when she turns back, she has a blue facecloth in her hand; with this she sets about gently dabbing and wiping your poor, fevered little brow. It is no fun being sick, she tells you. But she wants you to know that you, her sweetheart, are going to be okay. For a further 13 minutes or so, these moistly whispered reassurances continue, until finally the screen goes black, and the whispering fades to silence.
The video I have just described is called “~♥~ Let me take care of you ~♥~,” and it has well over 50,000 views on YouTube. It is what is known as an ASMR role-play. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which refers to a particular combination of pleasurable physical and psychological affects experienced by a surprisingly large number of people when they hear things like soft whispering, quiet tapping, and gentle crinkling noises. If you search for “ASMR” on YouTube, you will find countless videos like this one. Videos of people, mainly attractive young women, speaking directly to the camera, very softly and very, very slowly, often while pretending to do quite mundane things—giving scalp massages, performing eye examinations, conducting one-on-one napkin folding tutorials. Quite a lot of these are unbelievably long. There is, for instance, a video of a woman pretending to be your dermatologist that goes on for almost half an hour. There’s a video of another woman brushing her hair for an hour and 17 minutes, and there’s a haircut role-play with the near-Tarkovskian running time of 59’58’’ (longer than any actual haircut I’ve ever had). This last one, which is about as tedious a spectacle as you could ever hope to encounter online or off, has had close to a million views.
I’m not one of the lucky people who experience ASMR, so I can only relate indirectly what it’s supposed to feel like. Those who do experience it usually describe it as a pleasant tingling sensation that begins in the scalp and often travels down through to the extremities. It is a sensual phenomenon, but apparently in no way erotic; its effect is one of quietly blissful relaxation rather than any kind of obscure arousal. In fact, lots of people use ASMR videos or sound recordings to help them overcome insomnia, which is why so many of them are so long. The whole point of these things is that they’re profoundly uneventful. In this sense, it’s almost like a form of transcendental meditation; if anything interesting were to actually happen, the whole enterprise would immediately be derailed.
Although the sensation itself has presumably been around for as long as people have been listening to other people whisper or make soft noises, the term ASMR is a very recent one. Its origin as a recognized (although thus far scientifically unverified) phenomenon is usually identified as a 2008 thread on the health discussion forum Steadyhealth.com. The thread, entitled “WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD,” was started by a user named “okaywhatever,” who was curious as to whether anyone else had had the titular weird sensation in the presence of specific stimuli. Other forum users quickly jumped in, saying that they too had experienced an unnamed tingling, which tended to be caused by people whispering or talking very calmly and slowly. A couple of commenters specified that it happened more often in the company of elderly people, who tend to speak more gently. Although the phrase “head orgasm” was briefly proposed, commenters agreed that there was no sexual content to the experience. As a guy called “Tingler” memorably put it, “I got it once really good when I was getting knobbed but I think it was the attention that mattered not the sexual stuff.”
Attention, as Tingler indicates, is a crucial dimension of the ASMR experience. One of the things almost all the role-play videos have in common is that they center around a single person who is speaking to, and attending to, one very important presence: yours. (Non-role-play ASMR content—such as the countless videos of disembodied fingers tapping on things, scratching things and crinkling things—are a different, though somehow no less personal, scenario.) One of the form’s more popular subgenres is the travel-agent role-play, in which a person pretending to be a very soft-spoken travel agent takes you through a range of destination and accommodation options. There are a lot of scalp massages, spa treatments, make-up tutorials, wedding-planner consultations; the whole pampering-industrial complex is gently dramatized here in an array of quietly absurd first-person-perspective YouTube experiences. The active ingredient in all of this—the emotional narcotic that these videos seem formulated to deliver—is a kind of tranquil, womblike intimacy. (It’s worth noting here that, before it even gets a chance to kick in, the calming effect of a lot of these videos is brutally undermined by the viewer’s having to first sit through, say, a Zero Dark Thirty trailer, or an ad for some kind of berry-flavored heartburn medication featuring a triumphantly bellowing Larry the Cable Guy. In that sense, YouTube might not be the ideal media environment for this stuff.)
Although I don’t seem to be able to experience ASMR myself, I find that there is something quite affecting, even poignant, in the idea of people whispering sweet nothings into a webcam, or rubbing their hands up and down a bath towel, so that anonymous strangers might find some unaccountable pleasure or solace in witnessing them do so. As odd as it is, there is a deeply human quality to this strange convergence of technology, alienation, and intimacy. The first instinctive reaction to ASMR is one of comic bemusement; but if you watch enough it, or if you think about it long enough, it eventually gives way to a kind of baffled reverence. It’s only weird, in other words, because we humans are weird, and because the reasons for our comforts and pleasures are so often obscure to us.
The young woman in the “Let me take care of you” video is known to her 32,000 YouTube channel subscribers as TheWaterwhispers Ilse, but her real name is Ilse Blansert, and she’s from the Netherlands. It felt a little odd to be introducing myself and making preliminary small talk with a woman who, just hours previously, had been mopping my virtual brow and whispering to me that I was going to be all right. (That our conversation was held over Skype, whose video interface approximates the exact view I’d had of her, increased the weirdness.) I’d watched quite a few of her other videos, too—“Hairdresser,” “Dentist Appointment,” “Relaxing Bridal Magazine Flipping”—so it was, more generally, also a little odd to hear her voice at standard conversational pitch. (“Yes, I can speak normally,” she chuckled.)
Mark O'Connell is a staff writer for the Millions and an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.