"You know when you meet someone and think, They are an ASMR person", says ASMR superstar Emma Smith aka WhispersRed to me – an ASMR super fan of the freakiest order – as we sit drinking peach hibiscus tea at the UK’s first live, immersive ASMR experience.
For those unacquainted, ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – a fancy term for a special feeling that often gets referred to as a 'brain orgasm' or 'tingles'. It’s a bit like the feeling of someone drawing softly on your back, playing with your hair, or just making a series of sounds that soothe you. In the last year, the number of ASMR videos on YouTube has risen from 5 million to 13 million, with searches for the term up 140% in the last month alone. The best known ASMRtists (including WhispersRed, Gentle Whisperer, Gibi ASMR and ASMR Darling) get tens of millions of views on their videos and make enough money from ad revenue to work their magic full time. Cardi B was praised by ASMR fans for her tingle capabilities in a recent video for W magazine's ASMR series, which racked up 8 million views in no time at all. In today’s world, whispering is big business.
I started watching ASMR videos in 2014 and it felt like Valium. I got full-body tingles and cancelled the night out I had planned because I was glued to my screen in a trance. Four years later, I still watch the videos religiously, but moderately, every night for about 45 minutes before bed because I’ve found this special feeling to be very effective relief for my medically diagnosed generalised anxiety disorder and chronic, acute insomnia. Research released this year by Sheffield University exploring the physiological benefits of ASMR supports this observation, reporting that people who experience 'the feeling' actually have a lower heart rate while watching videos compared to those who don’t. In another experiment by the same researchers, which had over 1,000 participants, the ones who 'got it' reported "increased levels of excitement and calmness and decreased levels of stress and sadness" after watching the videos. To use those immortal words: It’s a kind of magic.
Emma started watching ASMR while waiting for therapy and struggling to sleep after a car accident left her with PTSD. "I went looking for nature sounds or something relaxing but found ASMR videos and it was amazing, I couldn’t believe there was a name for this feeling I’d felt for as long as I can remember," she tells me. "I started talking to people in my local community about it and I was met with the same reaction I used to get when I was little: 'What are you talking about?' So I just stopped talking about it, but carried on watching the videos." Emma started a UK Facebook group for ASMR fans, but didn’t actually consider making a video herself until she read about an ASMR meet-up that stipulated you had to be a content creator in order to attend. So Emma put aside her shyness and made a video. "I had one subscriber when I turned up to the meet!" she laughs, "but I loved it, it was amazing to meet the community in real life." In the first few months, Emma says she found making videos a nerve-wracking experience. "I’d get words wrong and make mistakes with lighting and forget to do certain things – it was difficult to find that flow. But I grew in confidence and my channel grew and now it’s just who I am. And I realised that all the sounds you make by accident are part of it!"
A busy mum of two, Emma makes her videos in a soundproof 'tingle shed' at the back of her garden, just outside of London. She says she doesn’t have a 'first' ASMR experience, as many fans do, but that the feeling was always there. "I always used to enjoy haircuts and eye tests," she tells me. "You know when opticians come up quite close to your face and the light is off in the room and they have a little torch to look in your eyes and they’re speaking to you in low tones. They are very gentle in their actions, and when placing the glasses over your eyes." Emma also recalls story time on the carpet at school being particularly tingly: "I had a really nice, kind teacher with a lovely voice and she would read us stories. I wasn’t really listening to the story because I was drifting away. A soft voice is always a trigger for me."
My own personal triggers are as random as the sound of a ballpoint pen on a piece of paper, the sound of someone slowly taking the lid off a pot of moisturiser, the sound of scissors cutting wet hair, the sound of a doctor putting on latex gloves – and oh, about 1,000 other things. I first 'got it' as a child queueing up to borrow a pile of books at the library, when the sound of the librarian scanning each book and stamping it, then writing the return date on the little card sent me gaga. Now, thanks to the internet, I can and do watch people pretending to be librarians and scanning books on YouTube for over an hour. I’ve also watched someone iron shirts for an hour. And fold fluffy towels. (I justify the time I spend doing this by not doing yoga.)
As an ASMRtist, Emma can actually give herself 'the feeling' when making videos. "I start making videos now and the time goes so fast, I can’t believe 30 minutes has passed because I’m so immersed in it," she tells me, as we walk around the space she has created in partnership with Fuze Tea, open to the public for two days. "They asked me what I wanted to do and I knew immediately," she says, pointing to two white pods where people are lying down and having their faces brushed softly with a makeup brush and their backs drawn on softly. She leads me next to a series of trigger stations containing bowls of shiny pebbles, plastic wrappers and bouquets of sharpened coloured pencils and colouring books to play with while wearing headphones to amplify the sound.
With research into the physiological benefits ongoing, and the numbers continuing to shoot up on videos, this, Emma tells me, is just the beginning. "There are so many things I want to do. I want to start treatments, I want to do one-on-one sessions, I want to work with children," she says. "And I want to create an ASMR retreat. I get tingles just thinking about that!" What would the retreat look like, I ask, buzzing in my own green aura of tingles at the thought. "Well, it would either be a static retreat which is always in the same place for people to come for long weekends, or a travelling retreat in different venues so you can reach more people."
Emma travels the world meeting fellow ASMRtists; her collab video with the Gentle Whisperer (actual name Maria) had 2.8 million views and fans going wild in the comments. "I grew up without the internet, so for me, it’s been so amazing to connect with all of these people," she says. "Now it’s about bringing them all together." With more live events in the pipeline and Emma’s tingly retreat plans, the future is looking bright – or more accurately like a warm, sparkly glow – for ASMR sensitives.