My teenage students let me in on the secret, strange world of ASMR.
The assignment involved naming someone you admire. This type of question, when asked of teenagers, often elicits a generic response, the latest store-bought flavour, a Post Malone, or a sort of Justin.
But this time something curious occurred: not that four separate students had chosen the same person, but that they had chosen someone so far off the pop culture radar that I was compelled to pause my lesson to investigate a possible phenomenon at work.
How were so many fourteen-year-olds, with no living memory of the ‘90s or much of the aughts, familiar with — let alone prepared to tap as their pick for ‘admirable person’ — the gentle-natured Bob Ross?
What could explain this fascination for the quirky public television landscape painter? Were my students being ironic? (Had they discovered irony?)
Turns out teens love him. So how to explain the Bob Ross gloss?
I decided to find out. I called these outliers to the blackboard where I’d scrawled BOB ROSS. They were unimpressed by the coincidence I’d uncovered. Still, they seemed bemused by my enthusiasm and were at least temporarily willing to humour me before re-submerging into the infinite scroll of their Instagram feeds.
Bob Ross made his name on the program The Joy of Painting which aired for 27 seasons in the pre-Netflix days. A seven-year-old me channel-surfing (the Instagram scroll of 1992) would find myself transfixed briefly by his magic. Over the course of an episode, a blank canvass would transform into an idyllic landscape, a world in which I fantasized of becoming immersed.
Even slips of the brush were framed as little opportunities, their place justified by the end product. Able to predict the scene before it became real for the viewer, Bob could tell the future and could make everything better. The artist as both therapist and prophet.
I prompt some free-association with my students. What do they like about this guy? Instead of dwelling on the visual, they come up with words like scraping and tapping— “or sir, you know the sound of, like, the brush rubbing against the thing you put paint on?”
“The palette?” I offer.
“Yeah,” he says. “I love that.”
“It’s the way he whispers,” adds another boy. I scrawl whispers on the board. “What about this sound?” I tap the chalk against the board. The boy grimaces.
“Not really. It has to make your brain melt. Also, it’s better with good headphones. With the volume up.”
Curiouser and curiouser.
Next period, as a new class shuffles into the classroom, I begin to clean the board when one student blurts, “Nooo, sir, don’t erase Bob Ross!” As though I were about to blaspheme a deity. Another coos:
“He’s so ASMR.”
I google it during Silent Reading, and it’s a mouthful: Autonomous Sensory Mediated Response. In other words, that pleasurable feeling experienced by some people in response to particular sounds known as “triggers.” That night, I decide I need to investigate further. Do a little experiential learning. What I discover changes the way I listen to the mundane.
Before the bell I mention to some students my plan to do some research on ASMR that evening. I’m met with raised eyebrows and snickers. After the room has cleared, the quietest girl in class timidly knocks on the door. She is wearing a look of genuine concern.
“Be careful, sir. It’s kinda creepy.”
Before I could thank her for her concern she disappears back into the chaos of the hallway. If it was on YouTube, it couldn’t be worse than, say, the “top ten horrifying moments caught on live TV” or “modern day decapitations.” I’ve been down these rabbit holes and lived to regret it. How unsettling could some sounds be?
Reader, let me tell you about my first time.
That evening I make a cup of tea and type “ASMR” into the search window, and release the floodgates.
The first thumbnail that catches my eye shows a young woman named TingTing. She wears a cocktail dress and smiles coyly between two expensive-looking microphones. TingTing is one of several ASMR artists (or ASMRtists) on YouTube. Though this particular video was posted only six days ago, over half a million people have been here before me.
I follow my student’s suggestion and slip on my best quality headphones, and am greeted by a rush of air, the slow draw of an inhale. TingTing smiles at me.
“Hi,” she whispers. “Are you ready?”
Ready for what, exactly?
“I want to give you intense tingles today.”
Mischievous eyes beckon me, her lips curling upwards in anticipation of these intense tingles she intends to give. She leans into one of the two microphones (arranged in stereo) visible on screen and reassures me that she “will be very gentle.”
Reminding myself that YouTube has a no-porn policy and that I am not breaking any laws, I watch — listen to — Ting Ting unbox a new makeup brush. She taps its ultra-fine bristles then drags them against the microphone’s foam windscreen. This lasts a minute. She dedicates the next three minutes to scratching her palms with her immaculately manicured nails while making a clicking sound with her tongue.
Next, she introduces a cellophane pouch filled with blue flower petals, which she squeezes to yield a sort of delicate crunching noise. When a long white feather appears, I begin to grow a little uneasy, as though I’d been invited to a friend’s birthday only to realize too late that in fact I found myself at a fetish party.
(Be careful, sir. It’s creepy.)
Then begin the whispers. As if calling back to the petals, Ting Ting tries the word ‘blue’ into the microphone. The result, halfway between a water drop and a sigh, seems to delight her. Admittedly, I take some delight in it, too, though nothing I would feel confident calling a ‘tingle.’ It just sounds cool, like a small special effect. She tries it a few more times: “Buh-loo, buh-loo, buh-loo.” She repeats the word, migrating from one microphone to another, alternation between left ear and right ear.
Other objects appear over the next minutes: a neck pillow; a card wrapped in plastic; more hand scratching and mic scratching and whispering. The entire episode lasts, well, about the length of a sitcom episode: 23:29. About the time it takes to paint a landscape.
Ting Ting wants very much to give you tingles.
The clip ends with Ting Ting thanking me for some reason, as though she were on the receiving end of this exchange. It’s only when a commercial for the new Rav 4 blares into my headphones that I realize the extent of the sonic sanctuary she’d curated for her listeners.
And to be sure: these viewers are above all profound listeners.
If there were no tingles for me the first time, it’s perhaps no fault of TingTing’s.
Psychologists and scientists have struggled to come up with a definitive explanation for ASMR. As it turns out, it’s not as easy as explaining, say, an ice cream headache, because the ability to ‘feel tingles’ is not universal. Some psychologists have likened it to synesthesia, or the ability to see color: a rare ability, to be sure, and one which remains largely misunderstood.
So where were my tingles? A few possible explanations might serve as a useful way to cover some ASMR talking points.
The first possible explanation is that the tingle is a myth. ‘Brain melt,’ this feeling which they claim starts at the crown of their head and travels down their neck: my students earnestly claim to get them, some rather effortlessly. And I’m inclined to believe them.
Had TingTing simply chosen ineffective triggers? (“Triggers” how ASMRtists refer to the sounds they curate.) Were they unique to an individual? What if, instead of flower petals, she had filled that bag with marbles? Or peanut butter? Would that have done the trick for me?
And about this “trick.” What exactly was I chasing? Was I seeking the wrong thing, or trying too hard? What some call “tingles” are also referred to by others as “brain melting.” Or “head orgasm.” Or “frisson.” One reddit user compared it to “carbonated bubbles in a glass of champagne.” Others have suggested it is nothing more than plain ol’ goosebumps.
At one point I felt a pressure building between my stomach and throat. Was this frisson? Or pad thai leftovers?
I felt a bit like an overzealous zen practitioner a tad too desperate for nirvana. Did I need a fourteen-year-old to whack me upside the head with her smartphone, barking at me to relax: “Don’t try too hard! There is no tingle, only being one with the tingle!’
They say it’s better the second time. The next evening, as I climb into bed, I slip on my headphones. Many ASMR listeners use it as a sleep aid, much in the way you’d use a meditation app, podcast, or melatonin pill.
Slouched against my headboard, I select the ‘most popular’ filter on my search, noting how almost all of them have a female host (surely this has everything to do with register of their voice) and select one video with 4.5 million views.
After an ad for the all-new 2019 Toyota Tundra, my headphones are filled with a meditative inhale.
“Hi guys,” she whispers, the voice all H’s and S’s. I’m distracted by (my god: attracted to?) the tacky layer of saliva between her teeth and cheeks.
I can’t. I pick up my phone, its blue glow (“buh-loo guh-loh”) lighting up my face, and press pause. Then I yield to curiosity and do something I’ve avoided doing for years.
I read the comments. One user writes:
“You are the fairy who makes everything scary go away.”
Is ASMR therapy or magic?
“Please perform surgery on a grape.”
So it’s science. Wait, a fetish? No, science.
“She makes me feel safe which is rare.”
Or a substitute for absent parents?
“This was my first tingle in months!”
Was there still hope for me? Was the tingle worth chasing?
“I love your tingles from Columbus, Ohio.”
Glad to learn that some pleasure can be had in Columbus, Ohio.
I steel myself as I play one video by a well-groomed male ASMRtist with a strong jawbone and eyes you can just fall into.
“Good evening,” he begins. “Good evening, good e-ve-ning-uh. Today we’re doing an all-hugs session. I know how much everybody likes to get hugs.”
Nope. Can’t. I toss my phone on my nightstand and turn over, the amplified sound of mastication tossing around my brain well into the night. This is no country for an older millenial.
Or is it? I bring it up over a pint with fellow teachers. Had they ever heard of this ASMR stuff? Shaking heads from all except for one teacher, who enthusiastically explains he’s been into ASMR for years, and even has his own curated playlist.
“I’m really into space stuff. Venusssss.”
Another colleague pinches her face, as though just made privy to too much information. So this isn’t just a teenage thing? I ask.
“God no!” says Mr. Venus. “As a kid I loved secrets, the feeling of someone cupping their hand around your ear and whispering warm air into it. Don’t you get that feeling?”
We stared at him blankly.
Experts who study ASMR have pointed out that a response can also result from personal attention, sharing a secret, which also involves the soft tones of a whisper, kind of the perfect trigger.
I’m not sure why we’re so surprised. Impossible that this kind of response hasn’t long preceded YouTube and high-quality microphones. I’d put money on the fact that certain neanderthals were giving themselves tingles in their caves. Masticating legs of deer, whispered grunts, etc.
Bob Ross loved secrets. A spruce tree tucked away in the corner. A technique for painting mountain snow. “This will be our little secret,” he would say, as though not speaking to thousands. No, Bob was not much interested in hiding his secrets. Like Mr. Venus, Bob loved secrets not for what they are but for what they can do.
Consider the word itself. ‘Secret’ derives from the latin secretus, meaning ‘to separate.’ To tell a secret is to separate information from its place of safekeeping.
Secretus yielded other linguistic offspring: the verb ‘to secrete,’ the process of a substance being discharged, the movement of a substance from one point to another. What if this substance, this stuff, were not chemicals — but whispered words?
In the 1970s composer R. Murray Schafer published a slim volume called A Sound Education: 100 Exercises in Listening and Sound-Making, containing a catalogue of listening challenges designed to promote deep listening.
They range from the short and reflective (#15 Write down the first sound you remember upon waking) to the archaeological (#67 Choose a sound that seems to be disappearing from the soundscape. Record it as you were preserving it for a museum collection). From the active (#71 Stand up and sit down without making a single sound.) to the impractical (#17 DECLARE A 24-HOUR MORATORIUM ON SPEECH).
Schafer’s mission was at once simple and perhaps a bit lofty: to get people (especially young people) to listen more fully, to tune into a world which was becoming increasingly cacophonic. Schafer was fascinated by the soundscape, what he defined as “the acoustic environment, the total field of sounds wherever we are.”
Schafer wanted students to tune in and cut through the noise. I’ve tried his exercises in my music classes, and more often than not they’ve been met with reluctance and skepticism. The students can’t be blamed; the odds are against them. The world is arguably louder than it was twenty years ago, with millions of soundbites daily clambering for real estate in the auditory cortex, begging for their turn at the ear drum.
A part of me envies these ASMRtists for having achieved something I never could, despite the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve spent on a music degree and on mindfulness education training. Which of us is better equipped to help young people foster a meaningful connection to sounds through deep listening?
I think the kids will be alright. The staggering popularity of trends like ASMR is a reminder not only that post-millenials have not lost the ability to tune in, but that they can be pretty good at it. As one friend and colleague put it to me recently, “this generation is listening, just not in the ways we thought.”
I’ve abandoned the million-view videos by ASMRtists with names like Heather Feather and WhispersRed and CosmicTingles, and opt instead for the work of that original master of tingles, the man with the ‘fro from Falls Church, Virginia. I click on season 6 episode 1, entitled ‘Blue River.’ And as I watch the artist deftly mix the oils on his palette, I sense my focus dwelling not on the new colours forming between the man’s able fingers, but on their sonic unctuousness, and on the soft, not unpleasant whish and tap of bristle on plastic.
With thick, feathery strokes of the brush he washes the whole of the canvas in a shade he identifies as new age blue.
“It’ll do fantastic things for you, this blue,” he whispers, just for you. “It’ll make you happy, too.”
New age blue. Age blue.