Like most people who get tingles in the back of their heads, I didn't know this was a thing until recently. When I was a kid, it was a fleeting and rare experience, but so delightful. It would often happen when someone was explaining a new concept to me and it finally clicked — I thought of it as the physical feeling of being deeply interested in something. Then, a few months ago, I fell down one of those internet rabbit holes into the world of ASMR, or Autonomous sensory meridian response. I won't go into the details of what this terminology means, but go ahead and read the Wikipedia article.
Basically, what I discovered were hundreds of YouTube videos designed to give viewers the tingles. “Whisperers” speak quietly to the camera, sometimes tapping their nails on things or describing items like jewelry collections. The whisperers are usually young and female, although there are some men as well. Many of them also do “role play” videos, in which, for example, they pretend to give viewers haircuts or makeovers, or pretend to fill out their information in a doctor's office. So far, these videos haven't produced head fireworks for me, but they are mesmerizing to watch.
One of the most famous whisperers, and one of the whisperers recently featured on a This American Life segment, is Maria of the YouTube channel GentleWhispering. Her videos regularly have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of views. Maria is blond and charming, with a soft Russian accent, and when I contacted her to ask for an interview, she replied enthusiastically. When we spoke, she immediately put me at ease.
For Maria, the tingles are “like a warm buzzing in the back of my head,” or like someone “pouring warm sand on your head, that it travels down your shoulders and your back, or like an electricity static, just a very harmless one.”
To start, would you like to just tell me a little bit about how you first got interested in ASMR?
Well, I found out about ASMR around 2009, I was going through some stressful times and some depression, I had a lot of anxiety, everything was just falling apart, and I was looking for ways to relax myself. I wasn't able to afford any kind of a therapy, so I decided to do it all by myself. I was watching relaxation videos and massage videos, and I was always looking for massage videos that would tingle in my head, that will trigger me in a way, and they were actually helping me to relax a lot. Once I was watching a massage video and I saw in the suggested videos it said “whisper video.” So I thought, I've never heard of that, and I click on it. As soon as I started watching the whisper video, I just got hit by the wave of tingles and I got so excited that I finally found the perfect video for me to watch. And then I went to comments, and I noticed that a lot of people were saying the same thing, “oh my goodness, you give me so much tingles.” After watching some of the whisper videos – they were really therapeutic to me, at the time of anxiety attacks and panic attacks I would have I would watch one and it would just kind of put me in a different place. After a while, I noticed the term people were using, which is ASMR, so I just googled it and my knowledge started from there.
I notice that you say therapeutic, and I wonder if that's how you think about it when you're making videos as well?
Oh, yeah, definitely, one hundred percent. Creating the tingle-inducing atmosphere is number one criteria for me. The second one – as you know, most of the ASMR videos always end with a lot of relaxation or some kind of preparation for sleep, so my second priority when I'm making the video is to help people with sleep, because I think 50 percent of my viewers watch these videos just to fall asleep – they don't watch it for tingles or anything. I get so many messages, 99 percent of them say how grateful they are and how beneficial this whole journey has been since they found this community, so I am absolutely 100 percent sure that there is therapeutic use for this. I wish I knew how to properly use it, I use it to the best of my knowledge and creativity.
Do you feel like it would be important to have a scientific research or confirmation of ASMR, or does that matter to you very much?
Yeah, I think it would benefit our community greatly, just to know at least how it's all working, and what triggers it and how. I personally really want to know myself, just because I work with it all the time, and I hear about it all the time, and I kind of have a picture in my head, but I can't describe it medically. And plus, it's going to be really nice to have a backup story, some kind of a theory behind us, so we can somehow explain it more to the public and to the media, because a lot of people find it just creepy or funny or weird or fetishy, you know. And we can only say hey, it's not that, this is what it is, but in the end, if we cannot support our thoughts or theories, nobody's going to really take serious interest in us I think.
Have you ever had any kind of embarrassment around that reaction, like that it's weird or creepy?
Yeah, definitely. In my previous marriage my husband did not support that at all, he didn't have ASMR. He didn't think it's an actual thing at all, he thought that it was just something in my head and I'm mistaking some kind of a feeling for it. A lot of times, yeah, probably I was laughed at for it, and made jokes about it, about whispering. I don't take offense, because I can imagine what it looks like to a person who doesn't feel it. So, that's another thing why we definitely have to have some kind of medical backup to it, maybe if it is even connected to some kind of fetish, but we can't say that it is, it's like, there's nothing, it's difficult.
Right. I feel like a lot of people do see the videos as being sexual or sensual in a way, and I don't feel like that's my exact reaction to them, but they're definitely intimate, and I wonder how you kind of interact with that intimacy.
I like to think of myself at least as like a mom when I'm doing it, or just like a caring person, playing the role of somebody. Whenever I create my videos, I always have to go back and read some of the messages that I got, like the most inspiring ones. I actually have them saved in my computer, so every time I read them, it puts me in a state where I actually wanna help or just kind of give something special, I just want to share. I have to be in that particular character in that moment to actually go and make a video. Otherwise, if I'm very distracted or I'm stressed out with myself, it's not gonna ever work out, and I'm not gonna even try to make a video that day.
It is definitely very intimate. Just because I know how much it helps other people. And that little percent of people who actually watch it for the creepiness, and for the personal purposes, I don't think about at all. That's fine. Anything that's online is gonna be sexualized at a certain point anyway. Anything, absolutely. If you wash your hands, or if you do hair tutorials, it's all gonna be sexualized at a certain point.
I think it has a lot to do, first of all, with whispering. Because I think that our brain, our subconscious, reacts to whispering and soft speaking as if it's a secret, as if you're being a part of something very interesting, very intriguing, very mysterious, and you just pay attention to it, and you feel like a part of something really special. Plus, whispering and soft speaking, usually nobody ever talks to you like that in real life, unfortunately, especially when you're an adult, and you might be missing that intimacy and that kind of innocent state, when somebody's taking care of you. So I guess it's just a lot of things mixed in together, and it creates a certain, maybe just a sensual experience.
I like what you said about something interesting or mysterious, because that's definitely the kind of thing I respond to. I wonder if you have particular things that work better for you or that you are more interested in?
I have to say, I have very diverse triggers. I've been watching [the videos] for four years now or something, and eventually your triggers will switch back and forth, and you'll stop being triggered by certain things, and discover new things for yourself, it's like a whole journey that you're going through. I would say the most inducing trigger for me is a slightly soft spoken almost whispered woman's voice with a lot of lip-smacking going on (laughs).
I know, it's gross, but I don't know, it triggers me a lot, especially the woman's voice. I'm not triggered ever by a male voice for some reason, which is weird, because for example my boyfriend, he also experiences ASMR, and he triggers mostly from men. And talking about sexual experiences, he is definitely straight. I don't think it's sexualized or anything, because if you watch male whisper videos they're not really sexually entertaining at all (laughs), but a lot of people are triggered from them.
The list is so diverse. We're going from different scratching and tapping sounds, to hair-brushing and very monotone sounds, like little drops of rain or little rubbing sounds, things like that. And then we're going to voices and crinkling sounds, so there's a whole bunch of things that you can choose from, and you can really discover new ways to trigger yourself as well. Before ASMR community I don't think I have ever been triggered by scratching or tapping, where now I trigger like crazy.
Do you feel like there's kind of a canon list of things, or are you constantly coming up with new ones? How do you decide what you want to make a video about?
Well, mostly I just go through requests and what people want. A lot of times I just go back to my old videos and I see what people say about certain triggers, if I tried something new for example and people liked it, like blowing into ears. I don't think anybody had ever done it before. I just sort of tried it and then it just got crazy, and now I'm using it in all of the videos (laughs), just because I keep getting requests, more and more, and everybody keeps saying please add it just a little bit in the next video too. So it kind of gives me a list of things that I'm supposed to use in the video next time. I know a lot of ASMR artists make videos in one take, they just sit down and they create a video and they post it. Unfortunately, I'm sort of a perfectionist and I have to work on it as much as I can.
Can you tell us more about that process?
As soon as I find an idea for a future video that I'm going to be working on, for example, I would think of what I can actually use in the video. I would think of what kind of sounds, what kind of plot I would have, what kind of different things I'm going to be adding here and there. Then I start thinking about sounds, like paper or sounds of rubbing, scratching, then I test it all out around the microphone, and I see if it's going to be applicable for that particular video. And then I kind of just start rehearsing it here and there, I will try one thing, saying one thing, then another, it's kind of trial and error every time. But I would say a regular video, like a role play, would take me usually about 10 hours total to make.
Do you write any kind of a script or do you just make up what you're going to say as you go along?
I usually do the research about a certain thing that I'm going to be talking about, for example if its a tutorial, I'll be watching a lot of videos of different kinds. I would listen to them, and see how they describe their movement and things. If it's a role play, same thing. I would watch either other people's role plays to get inspired, to kind of give me um, a line or two (laughs). Or I would watch a professional video, if it's a doctor role play or things like that. Right now I'm working on a witch video and I'm reading a lot about witches, and what they say, and what they are, and things like that. So, I just go through research and I kind of pick out little things here and there to add to the conversation. I'm never trying to overdo my plots. A lot of people I know really like intelligent talk in their role plays, and that's fine. I just don't feel natural if I have to memorize the script for example.
How do you feel like ASMR interacts with the rest of your life?
I'm still mostly in ASMR when I'm in the community, when I'm online. In real life nobody really knows who I am. I'm just a regular person, and that's great. My boyfriend helps me a lot. Other than that, none of my friends or family experiences it. So, I never really bring it up. They do know that I have a channel, and they are very proud of me, and they support me. They were at first shocked a little bit, they didn't understand what exactly I was trying to tell them that I do. But once they checked it out and they saw a lot of positive reviews and feedback, and how much love I receive. They're really happy for me.
I think the most ASMR conversation or experiences I do is with my boyfriend. We test each other out, too, to have physical ASMR inducing acts, like brushing hair or saying certain things, or like suddenly or gently just touching each other at certain points, and to feel if you will trigger with that. We just kind of play around with it, with a little bit of touch. It's just, a really incredible new way of bonding with another person, almost on a spiritual, like an energy level. But again, even though it is intimate, it's not in a sexual way, arousing. It's just a different connection with another person.
How do you interact with that community? Do you feel like you've gotten to know people well, or is it mostly just watching videos?
No, I definitely made a lot of friends there, some very close friends, you know, some enemies, but that's fine. Mostly people are really respectful and really supportive. I found a lot of ASMRrtists who I am personally inspired by, a lot of ASMRrtists inspired by me. It's kind of like a really tiny community that interacts with each other, and at the same time it's never a competition. Bigger ASMRtists support little ASMRtists, and kind of promote them throughout their path, and I think that's really great.
A lot of people are writing messages just thanking me as well. Like lawyers or firefighters for example. They're saying that it's very hard for them to sleep and they found that the ASMR tires their brain enough, that after you experience a lot of tingles you feel tired enough to actually fall asleep. It's like, it's satisfied, but exhausted at the same time, on just a really interesting level, cause it's not like you're exhausted after food, or sexual intercourse.
I was curious if you feel like your audience is more of one gender or another, or if it's a mix.
I always watch my statistics and if I have an overweight of a certain gender I try attracting the other one, so to say. I don't think it's a certain plan, I just think that it's more fair this way. So, you can see sometimes I make very sensual videos with a lot of touching of the camera and blowing into the ear and I know that a lot of men are looking for that kind of treatment from a woman. Again, maybe not necessarily on a sexual level, but on just, an interacting level. They want to be talked softly to. And then the ladies often really like the hair tutorials and little nail show-and-tells and things like that, little cutesy things. Right now, I have, I think, 52% male audience and 48% female, so it's really almost equal. It's always actually been like that.
When you are making videos or thinking about your audience, how do you think about how much personal information you're willing to share and what kind of things you're not willing to share?
I used to make much more personal videos I think, before I hit a certain number of subscribers, where I felt, just keeping certain things for myself from now on. I'm still trying to do the vlogs here and there, because a lot of people are really interested in me as a person, and I really appreciate that. I don't think I'm ever scared to share information about my life. I just don't think that there's a lot of things that people will be interested in, like about my job, or I don't like to complain in my videos. I don't like to bring out some kind of really sensitive subjects, like politics or religion, because it will always create only negativity along the line. Which is why I'm always trying to be cautious about what I'm saying, because I do realize how many people watch me.
A lot of people are underage, and I have to mind my tone, and watch what I'm saying and what kind of words I'm using. I've had a lot of messages from teenage girls and young women saying that, “you're like my role model,” so I have to always keep up with that understanding, of what exactly do you like about GentleWhispering. It's still part of me, it's the biggest part of me, but in real life I'm not all quiet and very slow movement. I am, but I'm still a normal person. But, I feel like it's just so flattering when somebody tells you that “you are my role model,” and that already creates some kind of responsibility for me. At the same time I don't mind sharing my life with them. I tell them certain things so they know what’s happening in my life, but at the same time I'm still trying to keep my personal life inaccessible.
Do you feel like there's anything that ties people who experience ASMR together besides just that they get this feeling? Is there something they have in common outside of that?
I have definitely noticed that a lot of people find our community at the hardest time of their life. Whether they lost someone, or if they're going through a depression, or they have to prepare for exams and they're looking for ways to relax, and kind of just let go, for them to be able to sleep. I've noticed the majority of people, that's kind of how they find our community, online, through searching for relaxation. So that's definitely something that we all have in common. Most people are using our community as a getaway. They might not even be participating in the community in a way. But, as soon as they're in, they just feel like they are a part of something really tiny, but something so special. Nobody's yelling at you, nobody's making fun of anybody, nobody’s hating on anybody.
The majority of entertainment today, it's always hate on something, or making fun of somebody. Even though it is fun, after a while, you just don't wanna deal with that anymore. You just want something quiet, something done just for you. Like role plays or whisper videos. Just because it puts you in a place where you are the center of the whole experience, as a viewer. You don't want to see, you know, no more loud sounds, no more explosions, no more high tech quality things. You just want a basic connection with another person, to see that there's still simplicity in the world. You don't need so much drama in your life. You already have it anyway. Everybody has their own troubles on a daily basis, and their own worries, and things that they have to deal with, and work. A lot of people find the ASMR community to be that getaway, that island of peace where they can come in and just let go finally.
To me, that sounds like a lot of responsibility for someone who is creating these videos. And you also talked about being a role model, and I wonder if that ever feels stressful to you.
It definitely is a lot of responsibility for me, just because I know that a lot of young women watch my videos and they watch how I interact with other people, they can read my comments and my replies to other people. They see how I interact with other ASMRtists as well. It's not just me who is doing it all. It's the whole community that's working together so well, that everybody's just on top of things with each other. I think it's just the whole experience.
GentleWhispering for many people is that very soft woman, she's very – I'm talking about it like it's not me – I’m just saying, you know, it's still a certain person on the camera. Because in real life I'm more bubbly. And even though I'm still like that, I'm not just her. A lot of people are used to seeing a woman as independent nowadays, like an independent strong woman, knows what she's doing, she goes to her training, and that's so great. At the same time, a lot of women forget about that connection with femininity, that it can be nice to be softer a little bit. So a lot of people, I think, because they lack that in everyday life, or they don't have a real role model in their everyday life, like a mother or a sister, they look for that softness of a woman, to kind of pay attention to it, maybe adapt some of her habits as well.
The whole whispering community, all the women here, all the ladies, are always very gentle, whispering. They get all slow, they calm down, and a lot of people want to be that as well in real life. They want to learn how to be more soft. They're just looking for more gracefulness, just that feminine touch to things. You know, I'm not saying that it's the priority in life, but I do think every woman should adapt it more, and just bring it out in herself as well, because it helps you throughout life, too.
I used to work in customer service, in medical supply, and a lot of times you deal with a lot of angry customers, and I decided to try to apply gentle whispering to them. I would literally just slow down the conversation. I would make my point still come across, but I would be very gentle about what I say, I would do it with a smile, and I would slowly move my hands, and things like that. And one hundred percent of the time, always it works. The customer always calms down, and feels much better and more secure. She feels like somebody's actually taking care of them and not just yelling back at them.
I'm interested in what you're saying about femininity, and I wonder how you think about the male whisperers, compared to that, if it's different.
Well, I don't think they're being very gentle in the videos, they're definitely being more calming, and more comforting towards the viewer. A lot of male whisperers mostly use sounds for their videos. A lot of other people, like EphemeralRift for example, he's being very creative with his videos, and he's creating like, tribal videos, Buddha videos, and things like that. It's still comforting. But it's not as gentle as a woman's video. Which is fine. I think, I used to be a little more intimidated by male videos myself, in the beginning at least. And maybe that's why it's still not my favorite. It comforts me, the voice of a man, especially when it's soft spoken or just a very quiet voice. But somehow I feel just guarded, I cannot submerge completely in that. But again, there are people who do.
And, I'm actually now thinking that it takes more of a man to make those kind of videos, and accept the fact that some people will be making fun of you for making those videos. I think it's showing much more, masculinity, is that a word? (laughs). Masculinity, in their case. You know, not to be scared. Because you know the reason that you're doing these videos. And you know how people really feel about them. And that's the only thing that really matters in the end for you.
Do you feel like being Russian, or growing up in Russia, has affected the way that you interact with ASMR, with your viewers, does that influence you in any way particularly?
Um, (laughs) maybe, maybe it does. I've been living in the United States for seven years, and I'm going to be 27 this summer, so I spent most of my life in Russia. I do see a lot of resemblance in myself in my mother, at least as I remember her. So I think, there's definitely something to my character that is more Russian, at least because I grew up there, and became an adult there. That's really hard to explain.
I think a lot of women are really scared to be women. They think that, they're vulnerable more this way, or that, they're not going to be respected if they're a softer woman. Again, you're taught to be a strong woman, to be a strong person, to have your point across and everything. And that's great. But you have to always remember about your feminine side as well.
Um, I don't know (laughs). There's definitely a certain Russian charm in me, I think, that a lot of people pick up. I don't see it, but some people see it, especially with my accent. And the whole picture that they build in their head of a Russian woman in the United States, and obviously it gives them a certain flavor. So I think it shapes their perception of me. I don't feel like it changes anything in me, but I can see some people seeing something extra exotic in me maybe.
Do you think that's part of what makes your videos particularly popular?
No. I think a lot of people really like my videos because I'm being truthful. I've never done it to become popular. I've never asked for subscriptions one time. It's been my thing, so to say. I'm never being pushy. If you like my videos, thank you so much, I will appreciate it, and I will be grateful to you, and I will listen to you, and I'm gonna try and help you more. If you don't like my videos, you're welcome to go, and I'm not even going to be mad or anything. I think a lot of people like that. They know it's not my profession. They know I don't make it for money in the first place. I don't think I'm being fake many times. Even in my role plays, I have to put myself in a certain state before I make a video, I feel like if I'm making something fake, I won't like it and they won't like it for sure.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'm really very excited about ASMR. I see a lot of potential for it becoming something special in the future. I see that it could be used a lot in spas, maybe in anxiety prevention or treatment. I see it used a lot like in insomnia treatment. I was thinking they could even put it in airplanes, when people travel and they have a fear of flight and they need something to help them fall asleep. You don't have that option right now on the plane. You have all kinds of movies, entertainment, but you don't have anything soothing, which is amazing.
On the one hand I think that media will break us apart, and maybe will ruin it in a way, that intimacy, that little tiny community. But, on the bigger scale, I think it will help millions of people, maybe to discover something new in them. As you go through the whole journey of ASMR – I sound like a teacher, I'm not really preaching or anything – it's just I've been in this for so long, and I've been in contact with so many people. You just start looking into it deeper, on a deeper level.
First I thought that maybe the whole ASMR has to do with your experience in the womb, or as a baby, because you would only hear soft sounds, everybody speaking very gently to you, when you're in the mama's belly. And, you are so comforted in that moment, like there's no better place for you. Throughout life you may be searching for that feeling, and as soon as you get that feeling again, you know, huge comfort and relaxation, it just hits you. Then I thought that, the other side to ASMR has to do with your hyper sensitivity, like a lot of people have overly sensitive taste buds, and they feel extra tastes that we don't know about. We don't argue with them about it. We know that it's there, we appreciate it, and that we’re not so lucky (laughs). I think that maybe it has to do with it, too, that we're just overly sensitive in some kind of a part of our brain, and whenever we hear a certain sound, a certain tone, a certain frequency, it just triggers us in some way and we experience something that other people don't, which makes us a little bit special.
Leanna Moxley is a graduate student and frequent tourist of internet rabbit holes.