ASMR and Absurdity
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.
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.