ASMR and Absurdity

by Hannah Maslen and Rebecca Roache

In the past five years or so, a new phenomenon has emerged on the internet. ASMR videos allow you to spend around 40 minutes watching someone carefully unpack and repack a box, or listen to a detailed demonstration of ten different notebooks, or observe the careful folding of several napkins. If you think this is something that almost nobody would want to do, think again: a search on the term ‘ASMR’ on YouTube returns over 1.4 million videos, the most popular of which has been viewed 11.7 million times.

What is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is the pseudo-scientific name of a phenomenon that, according to thousands of anecdotal reports, various news reports, and a recently published academic survey, loads of people experience. ASMR refers to a pleasant tingling sensation in response to certain visual and/or auditory stimuli. Common triggers include the kind of close personal attention you get when someone cuts your hair, certain sounds like tapping or brushing, and perhaps most bizarrely of all, observing someone doing something trivial very carefully and diligently.

Here is an example from Maria, YouTube’s most popular ‘ASMRtist’:

 

This might seem like a modern fad; the sort of thing that would not exist without the internet. However, whilst the terminology and the online world of ASMR are very recent, there exist much earlier descriptions of it. In a recent article about ASMR, the Austrian writer Clemens Setz notes that the following passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway appears to refer to the experience:

‘K… R…’ said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say ‘Kay Arr’ close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke. A marvelous discovery indeed – that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees into life!

 

Scientific studies of ASMR

Although brain-imaging studies are yet to be conducted, a recent questionnaire study has not only provided evidence for the existence of the subjective experience of ASMR, but has also revealed that it could have clinical relevance. Barratt and Davis (2015) report:

The results of this study suggest that ASMR … provides temporary relief in mood for those suffering from depression, with many individuals consciously using it for this purpose. Individuals [with] moderate to severe depression reported a significantly more uplifting effect of engaging in ASMR than those without depression. Those suffering from symptoms of chronic pain also benefitted from ASMR, seeing a significant reduction in their discomfort for several hours following an ASMR session.

The survey data allow Barrett and Davis to provide a detailed description of the sensations associated with ASMR, identify the ways in which it is typically induced in capable individuals, and offer further thoughts on where the sensations may fit into current knowledge on atypical perceptual experiences. They suggest overlaps with synesthesia, mindfulness, and flow state, amongst other things. It seems that there’s enough of a possibility that something is going on here to justify scientific interest and perhaps even clinical investigation.

The conundrum of valuing pointlessness

Leaving aside those for whom triggering ASMR has a valuable therapeutic end, the nature of the stimuli raises an interesting philosophical question about the value of seemingly absurd activities. How can we best make sense of the value of someone folding a series of napkins for no reason and, more puzzling still, of anyone’s taking the time to watch? To those incapable of experiencing ASMR, it all likely seems pointless. Such people might understandably feel that they are missing something.

The experience of not getting other people’s hobbies is common, of course. There are people everywhere who cannot understand the point or the attraction of playing computer games, reading trashy novels, collecting stamps, watching cricket, or acquiring an in-depth knowledge of a particular historical event. Yet there are also people everywhere who take pleasure in these things. At first sight, it may look like ASMR is another example of an activity whose ‘point’ can better appreciated by some people than others. Some people see a world of meaning in watching test cricket for days on end; other people prefer towel-folding ASMR videos.

However, there is an important respect in which ASMR is unlike these other things. Those who do not see the point in watching test cricket for five days do not think that watching it is really pointless or absurd. There is a point to cricket. It is rule-governed and goal-directed. Those who do not enjoy watching it recognise this (assuming they have some minimal grasp of what sort of activity cricket is). They find it pointless in the sense that they do not care about its point. Something similar can be said for the other activities mentioned in the previous paragraph.

By contrast, ASMR really is pointless. Indeed, the pointlessness of ASMR-inducing activities seems to be a significant, if not an essential, feature. Its value lies in its pointlessness. Rhodri Marsden, in an article for the Independent, explains the importance of pointlessness to his ASMR experience:

 There’s something about the way that the presenters take great care over explaining manifestly obvious concepts; I once saw a man talk for 10 minutes about the benefits of purchasing a pack of 10 blank video cassettes, and it left my head gently buzzing in a way that’s hard to describe. The more gentle and redundant their explanations are, the more pleasure I get.

So is ASMR absurd and, if so, is this a bad thing?

 A number of philosophers have discussed what makes an activity or even the whole of human existence absurd. A common feature of their diverse accounts is discrepancy. Feinberg (1980) shows how this discrepancy features in different species of absurdity. He discusses Taylor’s (1970) view that absurdity involves ‘futility or pointlessness of activity’. A different approach comes from Nagel’s (1971) suggestion that absurdity involves ‘discrepancy of perspectives for viewing yourself’, such as the pretentions and aspirations associated with taking ourselves and life seriously on the one hand, and our insignificance from the perspective of the whole universe on the other. A further conception of absurdity can be found in Joske’s (1974) notion of ‘triviality’, which involves a ‘manifest disproportion between means and end’, for example going to burdensome lengths for a miniscule reward. Thus, according to Feinberg, an absurd element can fall within five categories, none of which inspire hope for finding positive value:

It can be pointless, trivial (instrumentally disproportionate), futile, unrealistically pretentious, or otherwise incongruous or a ‘poor fit’, like actions that presuppose false or logically inconsistent beliefs.

The activities that are said to evoke ASMR are often pointless or trivial, and even those with some ostensible point seem to involve a great discrepancy between the great seriousness and conscientiousness with which the activities are carried out and the relative lack of seriousness of the task. ASMR triggers tick almost every box for absurdity.

Three levels of analysis

But, before we conclude that ASMR is as absurd as things get, we should note that analysis of ‘the activity of ASMR’ can proceed at three different levels: the activity that is the stimulus for ASMR, the activity of intentionally creating a stimulus for ASMR and the activity of devoting time to watching and/or listening to the ASMR stimulus.

The enormous amount of time and planning that the creation of an ASMR video takes might in fact not be out of proportion to the end of giving thousands of people the resources to relax. Thus, it may not only have a point, but might also be instrumentally proportionate to achieving the end of mass relaxation. Correspondingly, spending time watching a video that induces ASMR may not be pointless or trivial if it results in a relaxed state, or even eases the symptoms of depression or chronic pain.

So, does ASMR succeed in resisting the charge of absurdity? Sort of yes and sort of no. If it indeed has the relaxing or therapeutic effects that people claim, then, then it is clearly a non-trivially good thing and thus worth investing time on. But many people enjoy it even without experiencing a therapeutic benefit. And the conundrum still remains as to why we would find such pleasure in watching activities which themselves are pointless.

The relief in absurdity

As noted above, for many types of ASMR, absurdity seems to be a necessary feature, which is embraced rather than eschewed. With echoes of Nagel’s account of absurdity as the simultaneous entertainment of incongruous perspectives, ASMR seems to be in part derived precisely from the discord created by seeing someone take such a serious attitude to trivial objects or tasks.

So, far from trying to explain all the absurdity out of ASMR, absurdity is precisely what is sought after: the discrepancy between the myriad stresses and struggles that have to be faced to live life properly, and the simple, careful folding and re-folding of a napkin: yes, we’re going to spend the time it takes to answer ten important emails, and no, we’re not going to rush it.

Perhaps absurdity is therefore at the center of the production and pleasure of ASMR: If someone can spend so much time and care so much about something so unimportant then, at least for those 25 minutes and 45 seconds, there can’t be all the much to worry about after all. And therein lies the rush of relief.

 

References

Barratt, E. L., & Davis, N. J. (2015). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state. PeerJ, 3, e851.

Feinberg, J. (1980). Absurd self-fulfillment. In Time and Cause (pp. 255-281). Springer, Netherlands.

Joske, W. D. (1974). Philosophy and the meaning of life. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 52(2), 93-104.

Nagel, T. (1971). The absurd. The Journal of Philosophy, 716-727.

Taylor, R. (1970). Good and Evil, Macmillan, London.

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12 Responses to ASMR and Absurdity

  • Anon says:

    There is a comic that describes this phenomenon. Should let you know that this is somewhat NSFW. http://www.ohjoysextoy.com/asmr/

  • Maria Lucia Dario says:

    And I wonder: what is really missing to human beings in the current technological revolution? What is to be happy today?

    Thanks for posting this article, Hannah Maslen and Rebecca Roache.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    ASMR seems to be a pretty primary sensory phenomenon: a bit like the pleasure of a the taste of a raspberry. One can argue that raspberries are delicious because evolution has made us enjoy sugar-rich food and the plant has co-evolved with animals to produce a maximally delectable vehicle for its seeds. There is meaning here, although it is not due to any conscious agency. Yet the same delight is experienced when we eat something with the same taste and texture, even if it does not convey seeds or provide necessary nourishment. I hesitate to call it absurd, though.

    The raspberry example suggests one ASMR explanation. We respond well to certain stimuli that would have predicted rewards or increased fitness in our evolutionary past even if they no longer do so, and maybe ASMR is something like that. Friendly, soft social interaction that is easy to follow obviously falls into that domain. We enjoy it because it suggests safety. Maybe this is also true for the sound of crinkling paper or rough syllables, which might stimulate some low-level sensory processing (an opposite example is fingernails on blackboards, where the annoyance of the sound seems to be linked to hardwired warning calls among our primate ancestors).

    I think absurdity plays a role here. If we did something for a good reason, that reason would tend to hijack the whole experience. Only the pointlessness of the activity (and our passive rather than active enjoyment of it) allows us to experience the direct, low-level response.

  • Antonio says:

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

    To me quite simply asmr is just a form of entertainment like a lot of movies, TV shows, and other genre of videos on YouTube.

    What’s the point of watching fail videos on YouTube for an hour lol.

    What is really the point of watching the avengers movies as an example? It’s not real, it’s people doing things that aren’t possible and a ton of action. Kinda pointless but very entertaining and millions of people go to watch for 2 and a half hours or so. A lot of entertainment could be considered “pointless” from another’s vantage point. But none of it is actually considered to be.

    I experience asmr and have been watching asmr videos on YouTube before it had the name “asmr”. But it’s entertainment for relaxation. It works for a lot of people. While it may seem like these videos are pointless or absurd it’s only cuz its new.

    A beautiful song that relaxes you and gives you peace can help you sleep or feel good. A well done asmr video/audio can also put you at peace and relaxation.

  • Emily says:

    I wanted to drop in and make a point about this sentence:

    “There is a point to cricket. It is rule-governed and goal-directed.”

    The author is suggesting that cricket has a point because it a system governed by rules in service of achieving a goal. Then the author concludes that ASMR, because it doesn’t exhibit these traits, is necessarily pointless.

    I’d argue that there are a set of rules embedded in ASMR videos whose objective is to trigger a physiological sensation in its viewers. There is a shortlist of items that any successful ASMR video includes, and a protocol by which the “ASMR artist” abides by. For example, ASMR-inducing activities fall primarily into two categories: auditory and tactile. Within these categories there are common activities that considered to have the strongest effect on viewers. The “ASMR artist” attempts to combine one or more of these activities in a video. While innovation occurs in the formats or scenarios created by the ASMR artist, successful videos don’t stray away from a convention of activities: tapping, page flipping (tactile), whispering or soft-speaking (auditory). Furthermore sexual connotations are avoided by the artist, in effort to distinguish the euphoric sensation from a sexual one. This seems to be a point of general concern for the ASMR community.

    I think the interesting thing is that these rules weren’t designed from a centralized visionary, but emerged (perhaps evolved?) using YouTube as a medium of quasi-natural selection. Videos that “worked” for users were subsequently “liked” more, leading to a convention of rules and protocols that successful videos strive to reflect. As someone who is “ASMR-Positive” I was quite struck with the immediacy of the sensation produced by these more “successful” videos, and had the feeling that their content had been distinctly shaped after several iterations of public trial and error on YouTube.

    Rules don’t just govern games and activities, but also rituals and cultures. If we think of ASMR as a culture maybe we can be more amenable to accepting it’s supposed pointlessness.

  • Matt Mitchell says:

    People always do things for a reason. The question of absurdity is whether or not people are using sensible means to achieve a given purpose. ASMR videos are effective for many given purposes and therefore they cannot be considered absurd, unless they are being utilised absurdly. Just because someone else may not relate to it, does not make it absurd. If someone wanted to relax and used ASMR videos as a means to do this, it would not be absurd. If they used ASMR videos in attempt to discover the secrets of the universe then that would be pretty absurd.

    But whatever one cares to argue, it cannot stop ASMR from being a good thing for many people.

  • Clarami says:

    I’m not sure if all this comments come from somebody that really has ASMR condition. For me is something that I feel since a was a kid and that just today discovered others can feel it. It is related to some movements and sounds that are soft, rhythmic and smooth that make you feel like if somebody were petting you and is a sensation that comes from your head through all your spine. It is very relaxing and pleasuring and off course is something you want to repeat once and once again.

  • klarami says:

    I’m not sure if all this comments come from somebody that really has ASMR condition. For me is something that I feel since a was a kid and that just today discovered others can feel it. It is related to some movements and sounds that are soft, rhythmic and smooth that make you feel like if somebody were petting you and is a sensation that comes from your head through all your spine. It is very relaxing and pleasuring and off course is something you want to repeat once and once again.

  • Sydney Scientist says:

    I’m a scientist and natural skeptic, and I’ve experienced strong ASMR since I was a child. It is best triggered for me by sitting next to someone who is intent on a menial task (like cleaning a phone – really!), or thumbing intently through a book.
    I’m a lay student of cognitive science now. I have a hunch that ASMR has something to do with mirror neurons. My personal experience of it has always been like I am getting inside another person’s head. Could this be literally true somehow, through mirror neurons?
    Further, I wonder if an extreme ASMR could create an out-of-body experience? This would make a lot of sense to me. In its strongest episodes, ASMR does make me feel quite detached. I can readily imagine ASMR becoming trance-like and giving the illusion of being quite out of one’s body.
    ASMR is an illusion but it seems to me as real — experientially and neurologically — as any optical illusion.

  • Sydney Scientist says:

    I’m a scientist and natural skeptic, and I’ve experienced strong ASMR since I was a child. It is best triggered for me by sitting next to someone who is intent on a menial task (like cleaning a phone – really!), or thumbing intently through a book.
    I’m a lay student of cognitive science now. I have a hunch that ASMR has something to do with mirror neurons. My personal experience of it has always been like I am getting inside another person’s head. Could this be literally true somehow, through mirror neurons?
    Further, I wonder if an extreme ASMR could create an out-of-body experience? This would make a lot of sense to me. In its strongest episodes, ASMR does make me feel quite detached. I can readily imagine ASMR becoming trance-like and giving the illusion of being quite out of one’s body.
    ASMR is an illusion but it seems to me as real — experientially and neurologically — as any optical illusion.
    I’d love to see MRI tests, of the sort that reveal mirror neuron activity.

  • Jason says:

    My issues with this post are several.

    First, the notion of ASMR as defined here is too narrow to encompass all of ASMR materials, so even if the poster’s main argument does go through, it doesn’t apply to all ASMR. My experience with ASMR videos suggests to me that the performance of a task is not pertinent, it is rather the speaker’s whispering itself that is responsible for the noted effects, and the content of the speech is similarly inert.

    It follows that the triviality or importance of the task being performed is not essential to the effectiveness of ASMR, and probably that the phenomenon is less uniform than this article presupposes.

    But further, the given analysis seems to draw on rather poorly defined and vacuous notions as ‘pointless’ and ‘trivial.’ All talk of the ‘point’ of an activity should be laid to rest, the term being so confused, contested and emotionally provocative as to be useless in serious discussion. As the poster notes, the ‘point’ of an activity is the first thing questioned when one fails to see why others enjoy it. But even if the term has any function than this purely emotive one, we no doubt can reach for more precise terminology.

    But finally, it seems impossible, on your analysis, that creating ASMR videos or performing activities that cause ASMR in others could be absurd, in the sense of futile, pointless, or trivial. Since clearly people do benefit from their performance, doesn’t that fact save the activities themselves from the charge of futility, triviality, or pointlessness?

  • Anita says:

    This article is an opinion seeking facts. The author has a shockingly shallow understanding of ASMR and would have benefited from more reading. Cherry picking data is a foolish endeavor that will not stand up to scrutiny.

    It is this sort of pseudo-intellectual posturing replete with citations that is ruining genuine insightful research. The author seems content to make seemingly authoritative comments as opposed to doing the real work of expanding one’s knowledge before espousing a view.

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