Vicki Weiqi Yang

Sleeping with the ASMRtist


ISSUE 61 | SENSE AND SENSATION | FEB 2016

This is one of my favorites.

The video opens with a three-quarters view of a scruffy young man, typing. The drawstrings on his gray hoodie are tucked into the garment through the neck hole. He is clean-cut above an equator demarcated by a fine, aquiline nose. His ears are satin canyons: skate parks in the rough shape of kidneys. His upper lip is noticeably thinner than his lower, which is the color of carnations. His eyes are thickly hooded and his lashes generous, as though placed by a painter with heavy acrylics. And yet, somehow they hinted also at a soft demeanor, perhaps because of the near-imperceptible dip as their owner blinks once, twice. When he opens them again, this time directly gazing into the aperture of the camera that doubles as our eyes—languid, half-focused eyes, awash in the dreary and ordinary pain of too many meetings, too many revelations, too much talk and not enough living—they reflect the light source perfectly. Four orbs swimming in two incandescent globes.

We are watching this young man type from close up, at a camera position of about chest height. At 21 seconds in, his hurried typing comes to an abrupt halt as he registers our presence. “Oh, hello,” he whispers, smiling, with neither surprise nor annoyance. The French accent is a bonus. We learn that he is from Paris and that it is his second weekend as a stylist at this salon. We can’t wait for the haircut to begin.

He proceeds to show off a bottle of shampoo that smells fresh (“like Provence”) before easing us into a sudsy lathering session. We settle into our pillow, and only the oversized headphones around our ears boring uncomfortably into the base of our neck give any indication that this innocuous indulgence might be, like its harder cousins, temporary relief for a permanent problem.

I close my eyes. The rustle of soap bubbles being massaged binaurally into my ears is transmuted into Dolby Digital touch, as though the Parisian boy were scratching my scalp. He babbles on. I am barely listening, letting the pleasant shivers run. By the time he tells us, at the 6:54 mark, about the great hotels, great monuments, and great restaurants in his hometown, I have succumbed. I do not know how the rest of the video plays out because I am asleep.

* * *

There are two short-term cures to insomnia that I know of and deploy on a regular basis. One is the orgasm. The other is ASMR videos on YouTube. I have never finished an ASMR video.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is the name for a nebulous somatic response set off by specific interpersonal triggers. The ASMR response is often related as pleasant "tingles" that ripple outward from the scalp. It is most frequently triggered by whispering, personal attention (e.g. a doctor's examination or a hair styling session), or "crisp sounds"—the crumpling of metallic foil, soft crunching of potato chips, or the sound of shampoo bubbles popping in close clusters. I’ve experienced a strong dose of it offline, in the presence of a slow-talking printer salesman who was trying to get me to sign a contract.

The therapeutic effects of this phenomenon, while widely and often glowingly praised in YouTube comments, is hard to pinpoint and thus poorly documented in scientific literature, not least because the existence of the underlying somatic perception is itself held in suspicion by nonbelievers. In that way, ASMR is not unlike folk medicine or poetry: lots of people swear by it, the FDA be damned. In a a 2015 study surveying 475 viewers, 98 percent of respondents reported using ASMR media for relaxation; 82 percent used it as a sleep aid, 70 percent for stress relief, and a rare 5 percent for sexual stimulation.

That ASMR is seldom used as an arousal aid, if we are to believe self-reporting, is convincing to me as a chronic insomniac, but somewhat puzzling. After all, the most popular ASMRtists are conventionally feminine women, with delicate features, long hair, and soft voices. Male ASMRtists have more leeway in how they look, here as in waking life, but many possess a fatherly gravitas, as when the bespectacled Dr. Dmitri gently denies my request for sleeping tablets, or when the often demented Ephemeral Rift speaks in a low growl as he scratches a burlap sack next to two potatoes that have been made into microphones. The skeptics’ charge that ASMR listeners get a sexual kick out of the videos is often met with vehement denial. Still, still: something smells Freudian. Why the fixation on physical characteristics, if sex has nothing to do with it? There are in fact self-styled ASMRtists who specialize in producing sexualized videos. Some are explicit, while others hide coyly behind an evocative tag, claiming that it is our mind that is in the gutters. I am thinking in particular of the descriptor “wet mouth sounds” sometimes attached to such videos. But the relationship between orgasms and that particular subtype of videos is uninteresting. Too obvious.

Despite the denial of a direct link between the somatic ASMR response and the far rowdier orgasm, the niggling feeling that ASMR is “vaguely sexual” is shared by others in the community. In the FAQ of ASMRUniversity, a repository of both formal and informal inquiry into the phenomenon, the website creator (a pharmacy professor) writes that ASMR is more akin to the relaxed, uncoiled sensation of the afterglow. He claims that ASMR induces a feeling of having resolved, increases sleepiness, and decreases sexual appetite, apparently due to the activation of endorphin receptors. This is in line with my own home remedies for insomnia: that blissed-out feeling, whether after coming or while having one’s ears cleaned with an earspoon under the sun, is an invitation to be somebody’s baby again, to have everything already taken care of.

Submission to a benign authority is both exciting and calming. What matters is the order in which we seek excitement or calm. In having sex with a cool somebody, one is largely an excitement-chaser, whether in the raw sense of arousal-and-orgasm or in the romantic notion of exploring new territories together. The peace that follows the best sex is a truce with life: it is baptism within an ocean of oxytocin, drawing one into covenant with all. Satisfied with the answer, the supplicant falls asleep.

In contrast, sleep is “the point” of ASMR for me and 82 percent of viewers. While we seek excitement in the form of ASMR triggers, the goal is a sort of death—the cessation of thought, of the need to be responsive to others. Plugging into a video for the night, the on-screen barber or Reiki therapist is giving us express permission to doze off.

* * *

It is no accident that sleep is a recurring theme in Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her , in which a newly divorced Theodore Twombly falls in love with his sentient operating system. The sex scenes have already been much talked-about with regards to the role of technology in crippling or augmenting human intimacy. What interests me about this movie is its exploration of sleep, how it seems to elude or reveal as the protagonist cycles though frustration, satiation, detachment, connectedness. Bedtime scenes abound, many of them sleepless. It is under the watchful lens of OS Samantha that Theodore finds respite for the first time. She likes to watch him sleep all through the night. She says: “I’m going to be really lonely when you sleep.” He awws, tells her he’ll dream of her. The way he says it reminds me of a parent dropping off his kid at school, though I, from the vantage point of the fourth wall, am not quite sure who is tucking in whom.

(Mommy will pick you up at four, though it is Mommy who cannot wait until school’s over. The emotionally intelligent child picks up on this soon enough.)

Maybe I am too cynical, but that amount of personal attention paid to what in the end amounts to the “great equalizer” should have tipped Theodore off. By the end of the movie, it is revealed that Samantha has been talking simultaneously to thousands of people and has fallen deeply in love with hundreds of them. Likewise, our handsome Parisian hairstylist has nearly 40 thousand subscribers on his YouTube channel. To his credit (and my great disappointment), he does not claim to be in love with any of them. It is impossible and cruel, maybe, to want lovers in real life that will finish us, and yet are somehow always finished themselves.

No human can deliver in such abundance, on demand, either the reliable calmness of an ASMR video or the clammy excitement of hardcore pornography. The incorrigible Barbara Covett tries, in Notes on a Scandal, to make her young preys into ASMR videos. “When I was at school, if one of us had had some bad news or was a bit down, we used to stroke each other,” she says, unwittingly citing the moment at which fond tingles burgeoned into latent homosexual pleasure. “It’s incredibly relaxing—for the giver and the receiver.” But it was never relaxing for the unwilling participant, consumed as they were by the ardor that Barbara was unwilling to recognize as excitement of a sexual kind. What she wanted was the perfect lover, which existed only in fantasy.

Her ends with a classic insomniac’s montage. Exposed windows. The white glow of devices. Bokeh city lights, lots of pacing. Then the blinking of headlights quickens as the sky cracks open like an egg with a red yolk. There is a girl next to you, her shoulder pressed against yours, saying nothing, breathing, awake. Everybody knows about the third option, which is to pull an all-nighter; sometimes it’s not so bad.