The Birth of the Braingasm


The Birth of the Braingasm

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

Awoman walks into an eerily silent room, takes a seat by a mike near a bed, and begins whispering into a camera in hushed tones. She asks you if you’ve been having trouble falling asleep, as she curls her hair with her fingers. Before waiting for an answer, she picks up a bottle of lotion and begins scratching the outside awkwardly, as if plotting her path to world domination. She assures you that she’ll help you fall asleep (even if you’re at work on a Monday afternoon) and proceeds to make soft, scraping sounds with the various props she has spread around her. At one point, she remembers that she has a candle in her pocket and fumbles around for a match. She then lights the candle very slowly… and this goes on for a while until the video just kind of ends.

At some point during this gem of a video, you’re either going to wonder how the fuck you’ve reached this part of YouTube, or feel a weird tingly sensation down your neck accompanied by a burst of euphoria and contentment. If it’s the former, watch something else, because it’s only going to get worse from here on in. But if you feel that glorious shiver down your spine, congratulations on experiencing your first autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).

Despite its fancy science name, no scientist is fully sure what this ASMR sensation actually is. Most evidence for its existence is anecdotal – the tingling sensation has been reported by lakhs of YouTube commenters (they call themselves “tingleheads”), but was never a thing before YouTube existed. This trend has now spawned channels like GentleWhispering (7 lakh subscribers), ASMRrequests (4 lakh subscribers), and even one called BlackMaleASMR (12 thousand subscribers). A quick search for ASMR on YouTube throws up over five million videos, most of them resembling the one described above.

People who watch ASMR videos say they feel the tingling sensation start at the back of their skull and spread all the way down to their hands. Many claim to feel pleasant and relaxed, as though their “brain is having an orgasm”. Some say it puts them in a trance-like state and use it as a form of meditation, others use it as a way to unwind after a long day.

It is not very often that YouTube makes a significant contribution to the field of neurology, but given the number of people who’ve reported having “braingasms”, science has begun to take notice.

Apparently Indian accents are up there with Eastern European accents at giving you “braingasms”.

The only research paper published on the phenomenon so far was in March 2015 by a professor and his graduate student from Swansea University. The study asked 500 ASMR enthusiasts why they watch the videos, and what effect it had on their mood. A very small percentage said the videos sexually aroused them, and a few YouTube commenters provide proof of that. But then again, there are also guys who’ll send out marriage proposals to any woman who happens to like his Facebook comment, so that doesn’t say much. Most participants said they watched the videos to relax, fall sleep, or deal with stress. But that’s all the study was able to establish. The researchers are now working on another to see if ASMR evokes any actual physiological response, such as a change in heart beat, or breathing rate.

Until then, it’s anyone’s guess what ASMR actually is. It could be a placebo, but considering the number of people who say they have this feeling (including myself), it is not likely to be that simple. Some say the sensation is triggered by a cocktail of hormones, including the infamous dopamine, others say ASMR could just be a way of activating the pleasure response, since our vertebrate brains are fundamentally hardwired for positive and negative behavioural feedback. ASMR is so weird, according to one neurologist, it could be a kind of seizure. He says seizures can sometime be pleasurable, and could be triggered by some of the actions in ASMR videos.

These triggers could be anything from slow, accented speech, to exhaling loudly, to people completing mundane tasks like looking for something in their bags, or filling out a form. Since most ASMR videos are now so popular, some channels are going overboard trying to insert as many of these triggers as possible into their videos. The result: Videos of women whispering the Genesis in Latin with an image of eight candles on a stand, or Elsa the Snow Queen crinkling paper wrappers for 20 minutes, or even this squirrel with a GoPro attached to its face.  

The randomness of the triggers also sometimes results in regular people achieving great fame within the ASMR community. For instance, an Indian boy who made a submachine gun out of lego, became an unsuspecting ASMR celebrity after a Reddit user posted this video of him talking about the brick gun, with the tag “unintentional ASMR”. The video was the highest rated on Reddit’s popular ASMR sub (over a lakh subscribers) for two whole days – apparently Indian accents are up there with Eastern European accents at giving you “braingasms”.

ASMR videos are a lot like Game of Thrones in that respect. Those who get it, can watch them for hours, without moving or talking much. And those who don’t, are simply perplexed that people are so excited by “dragons and shit bro”. They may call it soft porn with no storyline. But I urge you to do yourself a favour and see for yourself.