Online phenomenon ASMR has people relishing 'the tingles'

Why are YouTube videos of people whispering into the camera getting millions of views around the world? CBC's Rebecca Ugolini meets a Montrealer who swears by ASMR videos and now makes his own.

'It's like goosebumps, but on the inside,' says Montrealer Patrice Chateauvert

Patrice Chateauvert makes his own YouTube videos to share with ASMR enthusiasts on his channel TheJapanCodeASMR. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Patrice Chateauvert can still remember one of the first times he felt "the tingles." He was in elementary school, listening to his teacher speak intently in a pin-drop quiet classroom, when a tickling sensation spread across his scalp.

"I think the easiest way to explain it is kind of like goosebumps, except on the inside. It sounds weird, but when you experience it, it actually feels good," said Chateauvert.

If that sounds strange to you, know that Chateauvert isn't alone.

Millions of people around the world are watching YouTube videos of people whispering and speaking softly, in the hope of activating those relaxing tingles. It's a phenomenon known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.

With great tingle, comes...?

But even if you could tingle at will, why would you want to? People who swear by ASMR videos say they're relaxing and mood-boosting. For Chateauvert, they've helped quell bedtime tossing-and-turning.

"I started using earbuds to sleep and listen to ASMR, and everytime it just knocks me out after 15 to 20 minutes. Which sounds like a lot, but it used to take me one to two hours to fall asleep," said Chateauvert, who now makes his own ASMR videos.

Some people say experiencing ASMR can be a productivity-booster. Montreal-based writer Katrina Caruso favours videos that feature tapping to put her in the writing mood.

"If I'm stressed out or thinking about all these other things I have to do, it can feel overwhelming. Listening to something that's repetitive can help me focus. It's helped me get into that flow," said Caruso.

What's the science behind ASMR?

Researchers such as Stephen Smith at the University of Winnipeg are just beginning to turn their attention to the ASMR phenomenon.

In 2016, Smith and his team compared functional MRI brain scans of people who say they experience ASMR and people who do not. He noted a difference in how the brains were functioning.

"In most of the healthy controls, [the brain's] different networks were more distinct. But in people with ASMR, the networks were more blended," said Smith.

Researchers Nick Davis and Emma L. Barratt are wondering about ASMR's possible clinical applications. In 2015, they surveyed nearly 500 people who say they experience ASMR.

"We found that some people with chronic pain use ASMR as a distraction, or relaxation, to distract from the pain," said Davis, who is now based at Manchester Metropolitain University.

Can you tingle, too? 

Even though the science is still unproven, for people who experience the tingles like Chateauvert, ASMR is a fact of life. And even if you're a skeptic, he says putting on a pair of headphones and listening to the videos is worth a shot. 

"If you ever have any sort of moments where you're stressed and your mind feels agitated and you just want a little bit of quiet, but quiet is too much ... if you try an ASMR video, you're going to get quiet sounds made to relax you."

About the Author

Rebecca Ugolini

CBC Montreal radio producer

Rebecca Ugolini is a born-and-raised Montrealer who loves covering the city. Follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaUgolini.

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