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ASMR: From pickles to brushes

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on December 13, 2019 Published on December 13, 2019

Whispering sweet nothings Using a brush on a microphone makes sounds that are meant to soothe ruffled nerves   -  AndreyPopov

ASMR videos help people wind down — or rev up

Ever heard of the pickle lady? She takes out a jar full of gherkins, adjusts her microphone, and then slowly unscrews the lid. She takes a pickle out of the juice, and joyously munches into the microphone. Crunch… crunch… crunch... Then she smacks her red lips aloud. And that’s worth 30 million views.

The video is part of a trend that has caught the imagination of millions of people on YouTube and other video-sharing channels. Called ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos, these little clips are meant to help people relax. With ‘ASMR The Chew’, the pickle lady apparently does just that: She puts people in a state of torpor.

For all those who have trouble falling asleep, or winding down after an especially hectic day, the internet has a solution — and, no, it doesn’t involve ingesting pills. Instead, there are millions of videos to stimulate ASMR. The videos capture people doing something as innocuous as eating, scratching or flipping the pages of a book, for instance — and viewers hold that watching the moves sends shivers down their spine.

The term ASMR, coined in 2010 by American Jennifer Allen, who runs the website steadyhealth.com, describes a relaxing sensation that begins on the scalp and moves down the body. The tingles or shivers one feels are relaxing enough to make a viewer fall asleep.

There is some criticism about ASMR, too. Since many of the videos feature women who are shown whispering or touching something, they are sometimes described as borderline pornographic. But supporters hold that these videos merely tingle the brain.

There are several known triggers for ASMR — such as listening to a soft whispering voice, a repetitive sound like the pitter-patter of raindrops, loud crunching, slurping or biting and a tapping motif, such as that of a nail on wood or metal. Using a brush on a microphone makes sounds that are meant to soothe ruffled nerves. Content providers — informally known as ASMRtists — play on the different triggers that people might have to create fascinating and sometimes bizarre videos. For instance, a Korean woman’s video of eating fryums — a fried snack — has been gathering millions of eyeballs.

In India, too, ASMR videos are catching on, according to Google Trends. They are especially popular in the states of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. Among the popular videos are those of someone enjoying biryani, dosa and a plate full of papad and fryums, or Indian barbers giving a hair-raising massage to customers. India’s disparate accents are also popular online. One particularly baffling video has an Indian man looking at and pointing to stationery — pens, pencils and diary. “This is a pen,” he says in a thick accent. And it has viewers glued to his words.

Art and photography ASMR content is very popular. Some even hail ASMR as a legitimate art form. Take Ben Ouaniche, an Israeli visual artist, whose YouTube channel Macro Room contains experimental art videos with the use of paint and macro photography. A typical video would involve a tank full of water, with suspended objects in it. Paints would be poured into the tank, transfixing viewers.

The Korean mukbang (a portmanteau word for eating while broadcasting) ASMR form is another popular genre. This has videos that show people eating large quantities of food. Tiktok celebrity Ulhas Kamathe aka “Chicken Leg Piece Guy” has won hearts with videos of him wolfing down chicken dishes. Veronica Wang, a popular ASMRtist, is shown digging into 10 different varieties of Indian curries and sides — including samosas and pakodas. Another has Peggie Neo slurping up Maggi.

So what makes such mundane acts so popular? “People watching ASMR videos report an effect similar to practising meditation. People are using them as coping mechanisms to ease the pressure of day-to-day life,” says Megha Banerjee, practising psychologist in Mumbai. “Anxiety has been the buzzword for the last few years, and these techniques help people to relax,” she adds.

Clearly, at a time when the Pantone company has chosen an ‘anti-anxiety blue’ as the colour of the year, there is a need for methods to help people cope with stress.

To de-stress, Yashasvi, a 29-year-old media professional from Mumbai, watches ASMR videos right after she wakes up. Her favourite videos are those that show someone scraping sand. “I watch the video, or it plays in the background, or sometimes I listen to it while I do a million other tasks before leaving for work. In all the rush, the calm sounds help me stay focussed,” she says.

YouTube’s top ASMRtist, Gentle Whispering, has been easing anxieties with, well, gentle whispers. And in the process, she has also been earning $130,000 a year with the channel paying her a certain amount every time her viewership goes up. The ordinary has never been so extraordinary!

Published on December 13, 2019
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