Everything is anxiety-inducing and you’re on your own. You’re alone in an apartment as sirens blare outside in a quiet city, and you don’t know if it’s the police responding to a crime scene or an ambulance transporting another patient who may have Covid-19. You’re alone in the countryside and you’re eating your fifth meal of rice and beans for the week, terrified to go to the grocery store. Social distancing has turned common errands into a game of Frogger you play with other humans. You can’t visit your family, your friends; they could have the coronavirus or you could give it to them. Thinking is the enemy. Life, work, death—pondering any of these will keep you up much longer than you intended, and there’s no one to console you.
The psychological and physical effects of isolation brought on by sheltering in place are all too real. There are many things you can do to protect the health of your mind and body while stuck inside, but, frankly, sometimes all anyone needs is a hug, a squeeze on the shoulder, things rendered dangerous by the easily communicable coronavirus. But there is something that can replicate sensation: ASMR. Autonomous sensory meridian response—that scalp tingle, that “brain orgasm,” that gets triggered by certain sounds like whispers or fingernails scratching—can help us feel like we’re being touched during a moment when we need it most.
Unlike meditation or introspection, which take a lot of work and require you to look internally, ASMR also blessedly provides a distraction. Firing up YouTube and listening to someone play with slime or tinker with toys is a window into a different life, and it provides the sense of relaxation and arousal (not sexual, but stimulated) that other techniques do not. That sense of diversion coupled with comfort means ASMR “may be uniquely suited to these times,” says Greg Siegel, director of the Program in Cognitive Affective Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. Moreover, according to research done by Giulia Poerio, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Essex, those who experience ASMR response show lowered heart rate and increased skin conductance, indicators that the emotion and intimacy felt is based on a real physiological response.
That’s important, because for many, there is no physical intimacy without immense risk anymore. There are the people you are isolated with, and there are potential carriers of Covid-19. With some two-thirds of Americans now under some kind of stay-at-home order, folks are becoming more and more separated. Some are sheltered with friends and family, but not all. When folks can’t touch or be touched, their brain’s threat response levels escalate at alarming rates. Physical and social connectedness provide the brakes needed to slow the roller coaster. For those who don’t have that, ASMR can fill the void.
Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.
“I usually put it on to fall asleep more easily when there isn’t someone around me,” says Stew Frick, an artist in Pittsburgh who has been watching ASMR videos for years. For most of that time, Frick’s consumption was sporadic, but now that his girlfriend can’t stay over without exposing them both to risk, ASMR has become a necessary part of his nightly routine. It provides assuredness and comfort—Stew’s preferred genre of ASMR is craftsmen discussing their work, a preference that stemmed from a fascination with Bob Ross—and an opportunity to watch others exist. It’s a reminder that our complications and concerns are fleeting.
But, it also provides the tingle for Frick and countless others. Some people don’t experience the tingle. To them, ASMR content is just an internet oddity or a weird fetish they can’t understand. But they wouldn’t see it that way if they felt the tingle. It starts in the scalp and moves to the spine and hits the lights on the rest of the outside world. Some people don’t think they experience it until you tell them different things about it, like the seemingly more universal “frisson” response—the chills you get when reacting to a moving piece of music or film.
The tingle happens differently for different people, but the physiological impact is the same. “It is essentially like being touched without being touched,” says Poerio. “The sensation of the tingling is a tactile sensation.” Siegel agrees, noting that those who experience ASMR often report that they get the same level of satisfaction as when they are touched—not sexually, but in a comforting way, like a hug, or someone brushing the hair back from your face. This may help explain why searches for ASMR on YouTube have shot up in the weeks since the coronavirus contact drought began.
It also explains why some ASMRists are looking at the service they provide a bit differently. Charlette, who runs the YouTube channel WhisperAudios ASMR and withholds her last name for privacy reasons, says she’s upended her plans for the year to focus on videos that might be more beneficial right now. An upcoming series based on booking and enjoying a holiday, for example, has been scrapped for fear that it may trigger depressing thoughts or memories of the outside world. Instead, she says, her focus is going to be more on social experiences, like board games or small gatherings in the living room.
Charlette is even considering opening things up for her viewers for more live, hangout type of content, instead of the more produced videos WhisperAudios usually posts. Given the current predicament, Charlette says she feels a greater responsibility to her viewers and hopes that creating more interactive experiences may give them an outlet for intimacy in increasingly dire times. “ASMR was always a way for people to connect with others in a safe and friendly environment,” she says. “Thank god for the internet, so now we can at least pretend that we’re with other people.”
That pretending and that role playing, which may seem odd to those that don’t experience or don’t allow themselves to experience ASMR, is vital. It’s a narrative creation that allows the distraction and intimacy simulation to happen, despite the fact that the physiology is the same for everyone, Siegel notes. Some, like Frick, actually struggle with the “produced” role playing and need to find “unintentional” ASMR in order to achieve the necessary feeling. However, even that is narrative creation: Convincing oneself that something needs to be “organic” in order to enjoy it is its own way of giving yourself permission to experience something in an authentic, tangible way.
Plus: What it means to “flatten the curve,” and everything else you need to know about the coronavirus.
Everyone’s ASMR preferences are different. Some people like videos that replicate the feeling of getting personal attention. For others, it’s the sound of a scalp massage. Or scissors clipping hair. Or someone eating corn on the cob. All of these are triggers for memories of feelings that can transport them elsewhere without having to think.
All of these are objectively weird to associate with intimacy if you’ve never experienced them in a way that evokes that emotion. Think of your most intimate memories. The ones that give you the most joy. Try explaining the feeling you are having in the moment of that memory—a graduation party, or a dinner with a friend and the sound of their nails on the wine glass, or a trip to the library, the smell of old books and the sensation of running your fingers over leather-bound books. As you struggle to find the words, think instead of your physical response to the memory, when you could touch that bottle of wine or hear the person next to you shuffling cards without worrying what unseen viral horror may live on the surface. Do you feel relaxed? Now focus on your scalp. Do you feel it tingling?
Everything is bad but you’re not alone anymore. Or, at least, you don’t feel alone. How could you? Someone is touching you, right now, as you fall asleep, the sirens and the death and the looming societal collapse outside are a fading memory.
More From WIRED on Covid-19
- The mathematics of predicting the course of the coronavirus
- What to do if you (or a loved one) might have Covid-19
- First denial, then fear: patients in their own words
- Fun tools and tips to stay social while you’re stuck at home
- Should I stop ordering packages? (And other Covid-19 FAQs, answered)
- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here