Softer Than Softcore

art by imp kerr

The overstimulated, quantified internet subject seeks the roots of intimacy in ASMR videos where strangers roleplay caretaking

Over the past five years, autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has become the focal point of a robust community of online enthusiasts. In its protoplasmic early life on blogs and message boards, it was simply dubbed “the Unnamed Feeling”: a blissful sensation of tingling along the scalp and vertebral axis that results from a set of reliable interpersonal triggers, distinct to each participant, but often with a great deal of overlap: soft voices, kind words, a conceit of caregiving.

The group’s coalescence was spontaneous and stumbling, in a way that seems typical for Internet-based discovery. Frequenters of online comment threads began offering halting accounts of a supposedly private experience that, it turns out, was enthusiastically shared. They reported a history of such reactions trailing back to their early youth, recurrent and unexpected glimmers of joy in response to close conversation and casual touch. Awareness of the phenomenon has snowballed as this proclivity has been profiled by various media outlets, mostly in a tone of wondering confusion.

Since coming into knowledge of one another and giving themselves a name, self-styled “ASMR-tists” have put forward countless videos specifically designed to provoke this response. The content of these videos range from the silent handling of common objects like hair brushes or cotton swabs to prolonged whispered monologues to role-play scenarios of impressive audiovisual nuance. In the role-play videos, performers look straight at you for the better part of an hour, gesturing around the camera lens to suggest that you are there, an arm’s length away, being gently manipulated. Clips tend to recapitulate standard scenarios (haircuts and doctor’s visits among the most ubiquitous), but new variations emerge each month: Now you are being fitted for a suit; now you are booking a cruise; now you are surviving an apocalypse.

In explaining ASMR to those outside the community, its enthusiasts repeatedly distinguish the feeling as nonsexual, a completely innocuous satisfaction. When novices are exposed to these videos for the first time, however, they tend to react with not just confusion but embarrassment, a sense of transgression — the fresh young faces, breathy speech patterns, and tight camera angles seem to borrow from precedents set by more prurient media. These are pornographic borderlands, softer than softcore, the sweetness of the performance never quite matter of fact enough to settle the question of its potential indecency.

Hard medical research has yet to be published about ASMR. Last year I wrote a paper attempting to decode it in light of my experience as a physician-in-training, focusing specifically on the sub-phenomenon of clinical pantomime, in which nonprofessionals wearing white coats offer thorough, prerecorded checkups on YouTube in which the viewer’s results are all happily normal. I grounded my analysis in the work of Walker Percy, the late Southern physician and novelist, whose larger project might reductively be characterized as an inquiry into modern syndromes of spiritual estrangement, one likewise outfitted with the language of the clinic.

At a time when the public discourse around health care seems to be uniformly disenchanted, I was impressed that the day-to-day maneuvers of the medical profession could be emptied of their contents and relabeled as a feel-good tonic. The popularity of these videos signaled to me an electric potential for real connections crackling beneath the surface of my ordinary professional interactions, behind the insulating postures of cynicism, defensiveness, hurry, or greed.

The ASMR movement spans much more than just clinical role-play, though, and in fact seems to dovetail with other large categories of community-produced media, inscrutable at the surface but riveting for millions at a more visceral level. Consider the unboxing videos that Mireille Silcoff recently analyzed in the New York Times, in which retail items of almost any size or value are laid out before the camera and described aloud, at length, and in exquisite detail. Silcoff hypothesizes that such videos flip deep-seated emotional switches. Some of us are so conditioned to enjoy novelty and possession that virtual routines of real-life consumerism approximate its psychic rewards, just as others of us so yearn for interpersonal support that we respond to its whispered approximations. Whether these appetites are a function of starvation or gluttony is up for debate (and perhaps best addressed, as with pornography, on a case-by-case basis).

For many, watching these clips constitutes a kind of therapy. Sufferers of anxiety and insomnia seek these videos out to soothe their particular clinical afflictions while untold others, gleaning from the experience a feeling of enhanced well-being, are easing distress that’s less well defined, measurable only after it’s been shed. In accounting for the joys of unboxing videos, Silcoff invokes the idea of “neural massage,” a metaphor that recurs frequently in the ASMR community as well, not only as a performative conceit, in videos about being massaged, but also as a rhetorical figure for the relaxation provided by the pursuit as a whole. The implication of this trope is that our brains are rife with hidden knots, the release of which depends on triggers that can be pulled almost without our knowing, or understanding why.

The first professional physical massage I received was from a petite woman who had a knack for the language of wellness. She verbally identified my muscle groups as she traversed them, names that, in my repose, were as foreign to me as if I had never opened an anatomy text. Repeatedly she invoked the specter of inflammation, and the histological nuance with which I had come to understand that term easily gave way to the brightly colored picture she was painting, of meat-red fibers adhered to one another by concretions of pus, which over the course of an hour she had successfully kneaded loose. She advised that I drink plenty of water to irrigate the toxins from my system. I complied with these instructions, which simultaneously made perfect sense to me and no sense at all. The warmth provided by any particular accounting of the world, it seems, depends less on its relation to factual conditions than on the tightness of its internal logic, the opacity of its lingo.

Massage as an act of caregiving is at once interpretive and corrective. The nature of our discomfort is unknown to ourselves, and we submit this vulnerability to the practitioners’ expertise. We go to their parlors to be read and restored. Using massage as a metaphor for ASMR thus implies that the videos are not just therapeutic but inescapably diagnostic – complex, crowd-sourced instruments used to survey ourselves for subtle depressions, areas of sluggish flow, bits of nervous scar tissue in need of gentle dissolution.

One version of the history of modern medicine is written around the growth of the diagnostic enterprise: physicals, serologies, radiologic cross-sections. Rightly or wrongly, we’ve been conditioned to trust visions of our health informed by the perspective of this third eye. A credible diagnosis increasingly relies on objective data that allows us to sense the body beyond its obvious borders, to peer into it and through it.

This fetish extends beyond the clinic as well. The ideal of the tricorder, for instance, a palm-sized scanner designed to detect a universal range of pathologies first posited by the Star Trek franchise and further mythologized by the X Prize Foundation as medicine’s next holy grail, supports this equation between mechanical assessments and the optimization of our well-being. The quantified self movement, as embodied by a diverse array of commercially available wristlet-pedometers and data-management apps, offers another compelling example of our penchant for deriving self-worth from our digital reflections.

More and more, we turn to devices to help us explain the generalized tenderness of our flesh. However keenly we suffer, however cleanly that suffering fits into our common nosology, each of us is inevitably captivated by the elaborate workings of our own insides. Whether or not we strictly need this information, pleasure is built into the unveiling – the thrill of reflexive comprehension, another small truth made naked. Diagnosis as a synaptic connection doubles as an emotional one, renewing the intimacy of self-knowledge, and of being known.

ASMR and its relatives are not weighted with the baggage of conventional pornography, but the echoes in their energies are hard to ignore. One possibility is that these online performances represent a sort of virtual flirtation for the lonely set, some self-guided foreplay, offering in the comfort of one’s own home the same preludial thrill that hovers between two singles in a bar. Viewer comments on good-faith ASMR clips often winkingly remark on the performers’ physical beauty, for instance, betraying a frustrated desire for a more conventionally physical kind of caregiving.

Alternatively, these videos might be conceptualized as artifacts of a post-pornographic age, in which a culture oversaturated with blunt stimulation has inspired a search for intimacy's origins and rudiments. If we extend evidence that long-term exposure to pornography is associated with structural changes in the brain, if we argue that the ubiquity of sex in the public eye is responsible for a slow and steady corruption of our dopaminergic pathways, ASMR may represent an exhausted attempt at reassembling the pieces of our fractured psyches. After the shock has worn away, after we’ve definitively had our fill, we come to recognize the urges behind our urges, some of which are startling in their humility.

Silcoff references a Tumblr, “Things Fitting Perfectly Into Other Things,” where photographs of interlocking household objects are fanatically reblogged as another brand of spiritual salve. It’s interesting to bear these images in mind in relation to the Internet’s glut of recorded penetration. In keeping with token futuristic tropes of form-fitting unitards and pill-sized meals, this spare, geometric landscape might be where the fully digitized society turns for synthetic arousal: a dismissal of brute acts in favor of their clean, abstract signifiers.

Similarly for ASMR, for the unboxing video, for Reiki masters and chiropractors and Western biomedicine, we plumb the depths of our disquiet and find the basic operations to be the most satisfying: What is closed, please open. What is disordered, please align. What is illegible, please read to me.