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The tingle is all around us: ASMR is the anti-digital digital phenomenon

The tingle is all around us: ASMR is the anti-digital digital phenomenon
Mary McNamara discovers the hidden pleasures of ASMR videos. (Chris Morris / For The Times)

I have seen the savior of print journalism, and it is ASMR videos.

Hours into a days-long journey through the whispering, tapping, crinkling, crackling tingle-inducing caverns of YouTube’s ASMR community, I came across several videos that consisted of a pair of hands flipping through the Los Angeles Times. None of them were less than 45 minutes long and one clocked in at 1 hour, 15 minutes (but that included a bonus Sunday section).

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First the sections were flipped open and the ads removed. Some ads were then unfolded and briefly examined; in one video, a few items were cut out of one with nail scissors. Then each section was separated from the others and “read,” often in a double-truck wingspan, more usually folded back into single pages.

There was no commentary. The only sound was that of the paper itself, the broad flap of a section spread wide, the sliding swoop when the spine of each section was slicked down, the sharper crinkles of inevitable hump where the paper was folded being smoothed down.

So it’s a video of what many still say about print products — that the sensory satisfaction of handling them is part of their appeal. An appeal that cannot be satisfied by even the finest digital platform.

Not exactly what you expect to find on YouTube in general or an ASMR video in particular.

Autonomous sensory meridian response is the sparkling or tingling sensation on the scalp and neck caused by certain sounds, often referred to as triggers. These include whispering, chewing, brushing, tapping, tongue clicks, paper flipping, plastic crackling, skin or scalp scratching, liquid moving in a container, and breathing.

Fans describe ASMR as relaxing, even sleep-inducing; certainly they are mesmerizing, at least as long as someone doesn’t shout in from another room, “What on earth are you watching?”

Fingernails tapping on various surfaces figure heavily in ASMR videos, as do brushes (hair and makeup) and the viscous toy known as “slime.” There are ASMR food videos (in which food is unpackaged, prepared and/or eaten), role-playing videos (in which ASMR guides perform real or imagined hair cuts, massage, makeovers or skin care regimens). There are videos in which people simply open packages, not to reveal the contents but the sounds.

It all sounds pretty silly when you try to explain it, but then so do things like avocado toast and sex. Videos from top ASMR artists, including Gibi, Gentle Whispering and ASMR Darling, have ads from film studios and restaurant chains, but many of the uninitiated are still shocked to discover that top artists make a lot of money speaking in whispers while swooshing a makeup brush over a microphone or tapping a French manicure against a piece of corkboard.

All of which just strengthens arguments for the importance of haptic perception. The belief that the experience of actively exploring a thing through touch and movement has affected areas including education and psychology, and haptic technology is a growing part of personal device design and virtual reality.

Meanwhile, the media, including newspapers and magazines that once fought to have paper of a certain stock and gloss, are racing to pour all their content and creativity into a series of ever more cluttered and physically shrinking screens.

Screens are by their nature non-haptic — with Alexa or Siri, you don’t even have to touch your phone or the remote. The fact that many people will read this piece, which begins with a description of a video in which the pleasures of print are celebrated, on a screen feels like fourth-generation haptic dissonance.

For years, book publishers have warned of haptic dissonance — that reading an e-book is a very different, and more limited, experience than reading an actual book — but who isn’t tempted by the ease of a Kindle or iPad?

By watching ASMR videos, we prove our dependence on a variety of sensory stimuli and our increasing need to have everything curated for us.

Not surprisingly, it has become a rather divisive topic, with some believing that many ASMR videos are art, while others see them as one more symptom of digitally induced brain rot. They are very easy to make fun of or satirize, and many people do.

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Last year, Jimmy Kimmel infantilized the trend by bringing a group of very young kids to his show to explain ASMR. He showed a few examples, which he then mocked; he said he didn’t feel anything, but then he never stopped talking long enough to listen. (Seriously, as a slime video played, you could see a couple of these poor kids just trying to get their tingle on and Kimmel would not shut up.)

Love it or hate it, once ASMR’s popularity, and profitability, hit the mainstream, so did ASMR. W Magazine has a whole series of celebrities, including Sarah Silverman, Jennifer Garner and Cardi B, exploring ASMR; a Michelob ad during this year’s Super Bowl features Zoë Kravitz whispering and tapping on an Ultra Pure Gold bottle. Nintendo just released a video for “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” that was so ASMR-heavy that headphones were recommended.

China recently banned ASMR videos, calling them vulgar and pornographic, and you know something is going on when China bans it.

Me, I am all about the tingle. The gritty silken sound of sand on wood, the sighing slap of magazine pages, the clip of a well-enunciated consonant get me every time. I still try to get people to write or draw on my back. ASMR has been called “a brain orgasm,” but the tingle is sensual more than sexual, and ASMR is as much about concentration as relaxation.

Isolating sound forces you to pay attention to that sound, to what you associate with that sound and to the effect it has on your body. So the sound of hair being brushed is evocative of being cared for; a kindly whisper, of intimacy.

It is easy to get lost in the warren of ASMR videos, to sit and click and let women pretend to cut your hair or give you an eye exam, to shiver as a handsome young man unpacks and eats mochi and cream puffs or as silver-painted nails lull you to sleep by tapping on glass and scratching a wooden box. There’s nothing wrong with a good tingle.

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But the touch many of these sounds evoke can be real; the sounds are just sounds of daily life. Your dog’s nails on the concrete, the crunch of footsteps in the snow, the hollow flap of a newspaper being shaken open, the tap of the keys on my laptop as I write this.

The tingle is all around us. We just have to be quiet sometimes and listen.

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