It tingles. It feels good. And it has nothing to do with sex.
(Unless you want it to.)
By now, you may have heard of the phenomenon of A.S.M.R., the soothing, static-like sensation that some people feel in response to certain triggers. These “brain tingles” are often said to pulsate on the scalp or back, putting people into a state of calm and pleasure so deep that it is often described as a “brain orgasm.”
You may have even experienced the feeling yourself by accident, while getting a haircut or watching old videos of the PBS star Bob Ross paint.
But whether or not you have any idea what we’re talking about, trust us when we say that these private sensations have turned into a public sensation.
The abbreviation stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, a name that was coined in 2010, as videos intended to stimulate the response started to take off.
It now drives an entire industry on YouTube, where video artists rack up millions of views filming an array of audio and visual triggers for their viewers: They whisper, tap their fingers, flip through pages of a book, play with slime, slurp up noodles, make “mouth sounds” and even role-play scenarios like a spa visit or a doctor’s appointment — anything to evoke the sensation.
For many people, the videos have become a part of their daily routine, a way to help them relax and fall asleep. The Grammy-nominated rapper Cardi B released one of the videos last year, in a signal of how popular the genre has become. “My husband thinks it’s very strange and weird,” she said, but, “I watch A.S.M.R. every single day to go to bed.”
And during the Super Bowl on Sunday, Michelob Ultra aired a commercial in which the actress Zoë Kravitz whispered and tapped on a beer bottle, giving shivers of delight to untold numbers of viewers.
But as the industry has expanded, it has also faced resistance from those who see it as something sexual.
The Chinese government cracked down on A.S.M.R. videos last year because it said pornography was being released under the guise of the genre. And video artists have complained that YouTube has flagged some nonsexual A.S.M.R. videos as inappropriate for advertisers. (YouTube said it had no policy against the genre.)
“We have to justify all the time what we’re doing: It’s not sexual, it’s relaxation,” said Sharon Dubois, 24, who has hundreds of thousands of subscribers on her channel, ASMR Glow, and said she deletes sexual comments from her page.
It’s true that there are some tingle-inducing videos that are overtly sexual, as well as some porn that uses the technique.
Still, experts said the tingle itself is not sexual. And, they said, most brain-tingle videos are not intended to be salacious. (Yes, even if this video of a woman licking the microphone has gotten more than 12 million views. But we digress.)
Few have researched any of this. But a study published last year found that watching the videos was associated with reduced heart rate, something not associated with sexual arousal. It also measured people’s self-reported feelings after watching A.S.M.R. videos and control videos. No significant difference in sexual arousal was found.
In a separate study from 2015, which surveyed people who experience the sensation, 98 percent said they used the phenomenon to relax, while just 5 percent said they used it for sexual stimulation.
“A.S.M.R. is not a sexual response, which doesn’t mean it can’t be sexualized,” said Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia and the author of the book “Brain Tingles.”
He compared the videos to watching yoga. Both types of videos, he said, tend to feature good-looking people doing things that could be sexually suggestive. “Yet everyone understands yoga well enough to know that yoga is not a sexual activity,” he said.
But while most people can stretch, only some people get the brain tingles. Dr. Richard estimated that 20 percent of the population can feel them strongly.
It hasn’t helped the phenomenon’s sexual reputation that some describe it as a “brain orgasm.” And there’s another factor: The tingle industry is overwhelmingly female, with many videos featuring women who are young and attractive. Tingles, a leading A.S.M.R. app, reports that nearly 70 percent of its artists are women.
In the videos, the women talk in velvety voices, make eye contact with the camera, give compliments and pretend to touch the viewer. The Atlantic described such efforts, to make whoever is on the other end of the video feel calm and supported, as “the emotional labor of A.S.M.R.”
But men often mistake women’s care and friendliness as sexual intent, said Asia Eaton, a feminist social psychologist and assistant professor at Florida International University.
Dr. Eaton, who said she could experience brain tingles, said people were also applying existing prejudices to new phenomena. “Our stereotype about women who are giving care and friendliness in a gentle, intimate way,” she said, “is linked with our image of women being sexual.”
The 21-year-old woman behind ASMR Darling, a YouTube channel with more than two million subscribers, said she goes only by her first name, Taylor, because she has experienced stalking and a public doxxing that made her fear for her safety. She said she made her first video when she was a teenager. “Being that young and being sexualized like that, it wasn’t a good confidence boost,” she said.
The confusion with sexuality takes away what she said were the real psychological benefits of brain tingles.
“When you sexualize it, people don’t take it as seriously,” she said, adding, “I’ve had people email me saying they don’t need to take their sleeping medicine or their prescription pills because it helps with depression or insomnia.”
Some artists also said that they believed sexual stereotypes had influenced YouTube’s decision to remove or limit ads on certain videos. YouTube has faced allegations of censorship after cracking down on a wide range of content that could be deemed offensive.
The site prohibits ads from appearing next to videos with adult content or themes, among other things. But it’s also possible that certain language — “role play” in the title of a video, for example — could trigger the algorithm.
In a statement, the company said: “We don’t have any restrictions on A.S.M.R. content that meets our community guidelines, in fact we welcome it on YouTube.”
Some artists have addressed the controversy directly with their viewers.
“I know it’s hard to explain to people who don’t experience the tingles,” the YouTube user Olivia Kissper ASMR said in a video on her channel. “It’s just too weird having people coming so very close to you, trying to touch you and stuff, right?”
But she said there’s no such thing as waiting for “one big tingle.”
She offered an analogy: “Most people don’t think of a massage as sexual,” she said. “But if you make it that way, then it is.”
Luz Ding contributed research.
Follow Sarah Mervosh on Twitter: @smervosh.
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