As a child, I loved having my friends explain math to me. It was never really about the content, but rather about how the pen traced geometric shapes and scribbled equations, how my friend would look up from time to time to ask if I understood. I liked to focus on the tip of the pen leaving a trace of ink, the light dent it created as it passed by, and the sound of it skillfully scraping against the paper—that sound, especially that sound. It sent hundreds of little shivers down my back in a deeply relaxing way. None of the math registered in my head, but I discovered an understanding of something else: a weird but pleasant sensation that people were just starting to put into words.
Turns out, while I was still asking friends in elementary school to teach me math, people on the internet were starting to discuss similar strange, pleasant sensations under a post titled “WEIRD SENSATION FEEL GOOD.” Many said they feel a tingly sensation that travels from the back of their head and down the spine when they hear or see certain things, like whispering, paper crinkling, or hair brushing. The discussion soon led to short videos on YouTube, like the now-iconic whispering videos by WhisperingLife ASMR and SoothingWhisper. From their voices—exuding calmness in spite of the rasping of the microphone—the phenomenon of ASMR was born.
I formally discovered ASMR from a short video on Instagram: a strange clip of a pair of slender hands gently tapping on a wooden surface. Slowly, one finger dropped after another, each polished fingernail landing on the wood to create a firm, slightly muffled sound. In the mesmerizing rhythm of tapping, the same relaxing feeling ran down my spine as the ones I had felt watching a friend explain math. Under the video, a short blurb explained that this was ASMR, short for “autonomous sensory meridian response.”
One video led to another, Instagram led to YouTube, and soon I was watching videos of ASMRtists—which I learned to be the official name for ASMR content creators —whispering into microphones, brushing hair, tapping on all sorts of objects, playing with foam and slime, and interacting with the camera as a reliable caretaker. I read stories of strangers who felt a similar pleasurable feeling, called “tingles,” in their childhood. These anecdotes included things like having their hair braided, listening to their family doctor scribble on a notepad, watching Bob Ross in The Joy of Painting, or listening to the crinkles of unraveling old parchment. I learned that although “autonomous sensory meridian response” sounds scientific, little research has been done on this sensation. So far, researchers have confirmed that ASMR does elicit a relaxing physiological response in people who claim to experience it, but the why and how are still up for debate. No one truly understands these euphoric sensations, but maybe its mystery adds to its attraction, bringing people from around the world into this strange, unique community.
Over a few years’ time, ASMR videos attracted many viewers who went down a similar rabbit hole. The videos became more creative and elaborately planned, and niche subdivisions, like horror ASMR, began to emerge. More recently, the concept of ASMR has been brought to a new height of popularity by W Magazine’s series of celebrity ASMR videos, famously featuring Cardi B “okurr-ing” softly into a microphone and playing with a bead maze.
Out of all these new forms of ASMR, I am still obsessed with the videos that focus on “triggers,” objects that make certain sounds or visuals that trigger that euphoric, tingly feeling. In these videos, ASMRtists explore the sounds of each object—tapping, scratching, bringing it closer, cupping it to create an echo, layering it with other sounds. Watching these videos, you end up spending a lot of time with the weirdest array of things, from colorful stress balls to miniature Christmas trees, sequin pillows to kinetic sand, blocks of ice, packing peanuts, coasters shaped like toast…basically, anything you can imagine. Every aspect of the object is explored: The body of a glass bottle creates one sound, the punt at the bottom creates another, and a whole new one emerges if you tilt the bottle toward the microphone and tap at its bottom. With any object in hand, the ASMRtist searches for unique sounds at every nook and cranny, picking out the precious details that are overlooked in our “normal” interactions with these objects.
fastASMR, an account run by a teacher from Germany, has a legendary perfume bottle that has captivated me since I first listened to it. It is an inconspicuous little thing—a rectangular, textured glass body with a padlock-shaped design at the nozzle. The perfume itself has long expired, but on fastASMR’s channel, the glass bottle gained a completely new life as a trigger. People love the sound of tapping on the textured glass overlaid by the sound of perfume rocking in the bottle. It became known as the perfume bottle, with viewers commenting that their mood is instantly lifted the moment they see it.
I, for one, think of the perfume bottle as my favorite item in all ASMR videos. I find myself going back to videos of it from time to time, with the urge and happiness of digging into a dusty drawer for a memento from a cherished past. I don’t know when it was produced, what brand designed it, or even what it used to smell like; I only know that nails clinking on the ridges of its surface can create a symphony of crisp, scattered sounds, and that is somehow the only important thing I need to know.
My attachment to this specific perfume bottle is not unique; most people in the ASMR community have their own favorite objects and triggers that hold a special place in their hearts. Since the format of ASMR necessitates hours dedicated to experimenting with the sounds of different objects, it is hard to not become extremely familiar with a few especially captivating ones. This relationship grows every time you listen to these objects, as you take in the details of their shapes, textures, and sounds, their movements in the ASMRtists’ hands, their colors under certain lights. This kind of experience builds a comforting familiarity to the object, like how you grow familiar with a tote bag that belongs to a close family member. For years, you watch them scramble for the bag while running late, listen to the keys clattering faintly inside the bag as you run errands together, and greet them at the doorway with the bag hanging loosely under their arms. Before you notice it, everything about the bag—the fabric, the graphic print, the sound of it brushing against their body with keys clattering inside—seems to take in a piece of your love for that person as well.
At home, my family used an old ice cream pint container to store soap near the bathroom sink. When I think of that white and blue container decorated with a vanilla flower, I think of rushing to wash my hands before a family dinner, and how, when I leave the bathroom, I’m greeted by windows turned opaque by cooking steam and an apartment filled with the smell of a homemade meal. Like the ice cream container, the thought of that small perfume bottle also brings me back to the times I plugged in my earbuds and played fastASMR videos, whether I was taking a breath between Zoom classes, procrastinating in the library, or in the middle of sleepless nights. Your history with the object breathes life into it, even if it is just intangible pixels on the screen.
For me, the meaning of ASMR exceeds tingles and relaxation. There is something deeply lovely in how these objects are carefully handled, displayed, and brought to the center of attention. There is something even more lovely in how these tiny sounds bring people together through a shared sense of appreciation for the beauty and uniqueness of the most commonplace, unassuming objects. You can trust that we will continue to appreciate these objects in increasingly varied ways and that, even after decades, the thought of a strange ASMR trigger will still bring a tender happiness into our hearts.