There is a place on the internet, far away from the sense-assaulting cacophony of social media and the frantic yawp of news, where the vibes are mellow and the goal is relaxation. In a tucked-away corner of YouTube, a fellowship of peace seekers have united around a genre of videos that they say relaxes them, soothes their psychological ailments, and eases them into sleep.
The videos involve soft sounds: whispering, hair being brushed, fingernails tapping, and paper crinkling. The sensation induced by these videos has been described by its faithful as a relaxing, pleasurable tingle, which often starts at the head and scalp and can work its way down the spine and throughout the body, producing a euphoric high. ("Imagine a tuning fork going off at the base of your skull," Mashable wrote last year.)
The phenomenon is called ASMR. It stands for "autonomous sensory meridian response," but it has a more popular, less clinical name name: "brain orgasms."
ASMR was first described by a group of Facebook and Reddit users in 2010. They claimed that watching YouTube videos of someone whispering or brushing their hair produced deep feelings of calm that lasted for minutes or hours. Some said ASMR videos helped them fall asleep. Others said they helped relieve stress and cure loneliness. (Despite its being called a brain organism ASMR, as its adherents will tell you, is not a "sex thing," but there is a definite intimacy to it.)
Over the next few years, the community of people talking about ASMR grew; today, the flagship Facebook group has more than 8,000 members. More ASMR videos started popping up on YouTube—at first amateurish and clunky, and then more professional and polished. ASMR was explained in a bevy of TV news segments and newspaper articles. Soon, it was a bona fide phenomenon; there were thousands of ASMR videos, and the most dedicated video-makers—the "ASMRtists"—developed huge and loyal followings.
By ASMR standards, Ally Maque is an A-list celebrity. Under her YouTube handle, "ASMRRequests," she has spent years creating ASMR videos for her "Tingleheads," featuring her whispering and carrying out all manner of ASMR-triggering activities. In some videos, Ally (who calls herself an "ASMRtist") role-plays a makeup artist. In others, she's a space travel agent, or the Tooth Fairy. Her videos have gotten more than 65 million views and earned her an army of avid fans, many of whom credit her ASMR videos with helping cure their insomnia, calm their anxiety, and even help them cope with PTSD.
Ally, who started making ASMR videos three years ago when her boyfriend introduced her to the genre, now earns a good chunk of her living from her YouTube channel and Patreon page. And she's made an unlikely career out of pushing the boundaries of ASMR video-making. She was among the first to film a 360-degree ASMR video, which allowed her fans to see her videos on virtual reality platforms like Oculus. Now, she's trying to bring more unexpected twists to the genre, using professional production quality and pushing the technical boundaries.
Scientists still don't know exactly what causes ASMR, or what its therapeutic properties are, but the effect appears to be very real for the people who experience it: one early study found that 80 percent of respondents had an elevated mood after an ASMR session. If that's really the case, then Ally Maque is a very different kind of internet celebrity: one who helps her fans stay healthy, as well as entertained.
In this episode of Real Future, Cara Santa Maria travels to Ally Maque's home to see her recording studio, meet her boyfriend and co-producer, and learn more about Ally's leading role in the growing ASMR movement.
Here's the video of our behind-the-scenes visit with Ally: