ELSA bends her perfectly coiffed head to her high-end microphone and whispers with care “peely-wally”. She pauses and adds, sotto voce: “That means pale and sickly in appearance.”
The 40 minute video entitled “Teaching you Scottish slang for tingles” has gained over a quarter of a million views since it was posted in January, and is part of a growing, vast catalogue of YouTube videos that aim to trigger pleasurable sensations in the brain - aka brain orgasms.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, a hidden online community where you’ll find everything from the beautiful to the banal and even the downright creepy.
It’s been called a massage for the mind and some claim it is the cerebral stress-busting equivalent of a work-out. Triggers for 'tingles' include the aforementioned whispering, close personal attention of an eye test, watching someone diligently performing mundane tasks like folding towels, the sensations of certain foods in the mouth like mash potatos, and repeated sounds like tapping or the turning of pages.
The Sunday Herald reports the 'fetish' has now become an underground YouTube sensation: a search for ASMR brings up almost seven million hits. The term was coined online in the US more than five years ago with the first UK videos popping up a few years after that. But in recent months Scots have been getting in on the act, rolling their rs and dropping their glottal stop ts to trigger ASMR in the growing global 'tingle' community.
Elsa, who doesn’t want to use her second name, set up her ASMR channel in November last year. She now has over 20,000 subscribers and has clocked up well over a million views of videos including “Leafing Through the Concise Scots Dictionary” and “Gaelic Ear to Ear trigger whispers”.
The recent graduate, from Glasgow, came across ASMR videos four years ago and was inspired to try out her own – uniquely Scottish – content.
“It has been lovely to see those videos reach such a wide audience across the world,” she says. “People seem eager to talk about the quirks of local speech and to learn about Scottish words. Perhaps there is also a melodic quality to Scots that enhances the ASMR effect. All the plosive consonants do almost create a “tapping” sound when whispered, which is a common trigger.”
Lauren, 22, also from Glasgow, has also seen the power of the Scottish accent. She set up her ScottishMurmurs ASMR channel in July last year after leaving University and now has over almost 56,000 subscribers and 5,281,572 views. She is also earning almost £1000 a month through advertising.
She too has made playful videos of Gaelic words and Scottish slang, in which she poses with a ginger wig and can of Irn Bru, and her roleplay videos – a classic in the ASMR genre – are also big hits.
In “Helping You Sleep”, which has had over 200,000 views, she appears to be under the sheets “massaging” hand lotion into the viewers’ hands. In others she offers a barber’s experience, a staged “kilt fitting” and a doctor’s examination. She also does impersonations of the biggest names in ASMR from the US-based vlogger known as ASMRDarling, whose videos have over 70million hits, to London-based WhispersRed, who was influential in the UK craze and has over 273,000 subscribers.
“I think ASMR is very common and people understand what you mean when you say 'that tingly feeling you get when someone plays with your hair or tickles your back',” says Lauren who used to watch videos to help her sleep and reduce exam stress. “What a lot of people don't understand is that you can actually get this feeling from sounds and scenarios, not just touch.”
Other Scottish ASMR stars joining burgeoning online community include ScottishASMRBlueberry, and ASMRScotsman, with most linking their YouTube accounts to Instagram and Snapchat.
Ross McCulloch, director of Third Sector Lab, which offers digital services to charities, claims it is now easy to get involved. “Setting up a YouTube channel is incredibly simple, the kit required to shoot full-HD video is no longer prohibitively expensive and monetising content is as simple as ticking a box in your YouTube settings,” he says. “The phenomenon is continuing to grow at a staggering pace.”
But is the sensation real? Dr Nick Davis and Emma Barratt produced the first ASMR peer reviewed research nearly two years ago at Swansea University and claim 80 percent of those watching experience a measurable increase in wellbeing, lasting several hours.
“It’s a bit like the brain equivalent of going for a run,” explains Davis, now senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University.
One theory is that the focused attention provided by ASMR works similarly to maternal grooming, tapping in to a primal urge. Davis describes it as a “very relaxed, state of intimacy that you might have experienced in childhood” and claims its about bonding. “You might speculate it’s why apes perform social grooming rituals,” he adds.
Now, like everything from dating to shopping, we are fulfilling those needs digitally. “In that way I suppose you could find the comparison to porn in that we are turning to online experiences to replace real life ones, looking for social rewards in a solitary setting,” says Davis.
There is also a darker side of ASMR, with some claiming videos, which largely feature young, beautiful women, can be disturbingly fetishistic in both content and tone. But, claims Davis, the research doesn’t bear that out. While 98 per cent reported turning to videos to help them relax, only five per cent said they found them sexually stimulating.
“Some of the videos can be a bit weird or even creepy,” he says. “When I first called some up on my computer as part of my research I did wonder what I would think. But those appearing in the videos are the ones making them so there’s no exploitative element here.”
ASMR artists agree. Elsa claims it is those who don’t experience ASMR who misunderstand the intention, particularly as YouTube’s algorithms tend to prioritise the more sensationalist videos.
“The sensation is completely non-sexual, and almost all content within the genre reflects this,” she says. “However, a minority will attempt to sexualise it to garner views. This is unfortunate, but is an internet-wide problem.”
More research to explain the mechanisms behind the process will help destigmatise it, she claims and there are an increasing number of academics in both the US and the UK working on just that.
But whatever the mechanisms at play, for the millions out there logging on, for now, it’s all about the tingles.