This Is Why Your Brain Is So Mesmerized By Visual ASMR

Those ultra-soothing whisper videos have a visual equivalent, and here's how they work.

A few years ago, seemingly from the depths of the internet, a buzzword emerged: ASMR. It stands for "autonomous sensory meridian response," an acronym coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010 to describe the tingly, relaxing sensation that many people experience when exposed to certain stimuli, the most common examples being specific soothing sounds like gentle whispering. One MRI study examined the brain activity of people exposed to ASMR and found "significant activation" in brain regions associated with reward and emotional arousal. ASMR exposure also revealed similar brain activity to that of musical frisson (getting literal chills from hearing certain pleasurable sounds or music) and affiliative behaviors (smiling, bonding, pleasing social connection).

This reaction is often described as "brain tingles," and it's not as new as the term may make them seem. "[ASMR] has probably always existed—it's a physiological response," says Craig Richard, Ph.D., a professor of physiology at Shenandoah University in Virginia, founder of ASMR University, and author of Brain Tingles. "There have always been people going to hairdressers getting super-relaxed. There have always been clinicians working with patients giving them benign tingles. But it was YouTube that took that feeling and made it really accessible." It's true: The platform exploded with videos offering these strangely soothing sounds and visuals to help promote sleep and soothe anxiety. ASMR has become a bona fide phenomenon.

There's no easy way to know if you're a person who will experience these brain tingles from watching an ASMR video—you just have to watch a bunch of them and see. "It would be wonderful if there were a test," says Richard. "The way to do it is to sample a lot of videos, a lot of [creators], and a lot of trigger types, I compare it to finding out your favorite food: You're going to have to sample a lot of food, and along the way you might find a lot of food you don't like." So even if you watch a few and don't feel the "tingles," that doesn't mean you're immune to ASMR's effects, you may just have to keep digging.

What exactly is visual ASMR?

While you're sampling, you may stumble upon a sub-type of ASMR: visual ASMR. While most people who react to ASMR videos are having a response to auditory stimuli (think whispering, tapping, even eating sounds), the audio isn't acting alone. As Richard points out, there are ASMR podcasts with no visual element at all that aren't nearly as popular as the videos. Why? Because the sound and the sights work together to create that relaxed feeling. In many if not most ASMR videos, the sound is the most important element and the visuals are secondary, but in visual ASMR this relationship is reversed.

The best way to describe these ASMR experiences is probably as something extremely satisfying to watch, like something being done in neat, repetitive motions. "But when we're talking about visually-focused ASMR videos, there's still some sound there. And that sound is probably very important, even if it's just the ambiance of the room," says Richard. It might be watching someone with flawless handwriting creating a perfectly neat and organized to-do list; or watching a close-up of a trained chef cutting immaculate avocado slices.

There's one other crucial element in a visual ASMR video: hands. "The commonality to all these visually focused videos is the hands," says Richard. "It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it gently, predictably, with expertise, and you're doing it with your hands in some way that it appears to be demonstrated to the viewer."

Richard explains that there's a primal, evolutionary reason for this: "We are hard-wired to respond to hands," he says. Hands indicate danger—if someone is coming at you with a weapon, it's in their hands—but they also are a primary driver of survival. Richard explains: "[If someone is] manipulating something in their hands, they might be making a tool. They might be picking berries. They might be creating something that can help you find resources. So you shouldn't run away. In fact, you should be relaxed, and stay there, and stare at their hands to see what you can learn from that process." Of course, watching someone poke slime doesn't teach us how to survive in the wilderness, but our brains don't know the difference—the cue to stay and stare gets released all the same. Thus, why hands are so powerful, relaxing, and soothing to watch?

Another thing these ASMR videos have in common? They're long. "And you can go ahead and say it—they're boring!" says Richard. But long, boring, and relaxing are not mutually exclusive. "It defies the core principles of a good YouTube video. You're not really being entertained by it. It's long because it's helpful. It's similar in concept to meditation or mindfulness." And once you've experienced the blissed-out relaxation of ASMR, it won't seem strange at all to watch an hour-long video of hands squishing slime. You'll downright welcome it.

Visual ASMR Examples

To help you get a sense of what visual ASMR looks like—and to see if they help bring you a sense of calm—below are some popular (and mesmerizing) examples of the soothing power of visual ASMR.

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Cake Decorating

You might actually learn a technique or two from this very soothing video of cake decorating—but even if you don't, watching someone pipe icing rosettes is so satisfying.

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Soap Crushing

Pretty sure this type of soap only exists to be crushed for ASMR purposes. It works, though!

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Pattern Making

A pair of perfectly manicured hands create intricate designs with gel, shaving cream, candies, and more. The objects being manipulated change frequently, so this video is a great way to sample a bunch of so-called "triggers" (different catalysts to the ASMR reaction) to see if any work for you.

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Paint Mixing

Paint-mixing is soothing to watch in general—add in a POV that lets you see the hands doing the mixing and it's a recipe for ASMR success. There is a pickle for some reason, too (we can't explain it either), but watch as the artist mixes paint to match the exact color of the object in the video. So satisfying.

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Slime Poking

Slime-poking is a subgenre of ASMR all its own, and there are many compilations of the "best-of" slime poking. It's not for everybody, but if slime poking relaxes you to watch, you really can't go wrong.

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Keyboard Cleaning

Not only is this video of keyboard cleaning satisfying to watch, it's actually practical— look how clean it is when those hands are done.

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