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Latest Social Media Craze: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response
09/04/2012   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Most would agree that social media outlets like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have altered how people communicate and share information. One of the newer communities to pop up on YouTube is known as the ASMR community. The videos these YouTubers make will either strike a deep personal chord, or leave you scratching your head. And as Jennifer Mitchell reports, it all began with a popular PBS icon.

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Bob Ross

A voice many fans of public television will know is that of the late Bob Ross, host of the Joy of Painting series on PBS. Although Ross passed away in 1995, his voice and his videos have lived on, taking on almost cult status among a group of YouTubers for their ability to trigger a pleasing physical effect they call ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

It's not clear who came up with the term, or its definition. Jon Ippolito, a new media specialist at the University of Maine, described it like this: "Sound induced scalp-orgasms, right? This tingling sensation in your head and shoulders and down your back when you hear certain kinds of sounds, or when you watch particular activities, like people doing a task that they've done many times before."

ASMR is also described as a feeling of extreme tranquility, along with the trademark "head tingles' and "spine tingles." The variety of these videos existing on YouTube is surprising, ranging from people's favorite Bob Ross moments to videos of people tapping quietly on a desk, chewing gum, the sounds of whispering, unwrapping crinkly packages, and role-playing a variety of scenarios, from trips to the hair dresser to filling out passport applications.

"And I went on YouTube to try this, of course, and the top one was someone with a brush, a plastic brush. A woman sort of scrubbing her fingernails across it making a clickety, clickety sound," Ippolito said. "And the YouTube comments were all, like, Wow, that's a amazing! Aw, blew my mind. And I was, like, Okay...not getting anything."

Ippolito may not be getting anything, but plenty of others are. A YouTube search on ASMR brings up more than 16,000 results.

One of the top results is produced by a YouTube user called GentleWhispering, who wished only to be identified as Maria. She's one of the superstars of the ASMR community, both on YouTube, and in her home country of Russia.

She's created 129 videos of her own, designed to replicate the ASMR effect. And she has more than 38,000 subscribers on YouTube. Like most everyone else familiar with ASMR, Maria agreed that when it comes to hitting all the right notes, Bob Ross is the best.

"At the end of watching a Bob Ross video, you tended to believe, I can be a painter. I can do what this man tells me," said Bill Donahue, a therapist in Bangor. He's not surprised by the ASMR phenomenon. He said it's not unlike what therapists do during hypnosis sessions, where subjects are systematically calmed with gentle, repetitive sounds, and where they can let go of certain anxieties and accept positive suggestions.

"The access of some of the central experience through your different senses, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and sense of touch, the pathways and understanding of how they work, interrelate with the brain, is not well-understood. It's still an undiscovered part of the human body," Donahue said.

Other than simply for pleasure, fans of ASMR said there are other benefits to the relaxation technique.

"Malcom" is a 27-year-old Englishman who said he got his start by looking at Bob Ross videos.

"I had been listening for a good number of months and almost from a voyeuristic point of view," Malcom said. "And I realized how much it was helping me. It was definitely helping me, because I'd gone through a spell of depression and anxiety, and I actually found it very calming and a very neutral device for my own personal being."

And that's a common story among this group on YouTube. Maria said some of the subscribers to her videos include soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"And they share with me how much they struggle with their nightmares that they get," she said. "And the ASMR whisper videos, they actually help them fall asleep better, which is amazing because they sometimes say medications don't work, but these videos work instead."

The unexpected enrichment of people's lives through videos like these produced by the ASMR community, and a platform on which strangers can share the human experience, is the Internet at its best, said Jon Ippolito at the University of Maine.

"The specialty seems to be so idiosyncratic, almost genetic, that's it's unlikely that you'd find any more folks like that in your backyard. That's where the Internet's power really comes in, because all you have to do is put out a search query, or post something to a message forum and suddenly all these people may respond. We've seen it in Arab Spring, where entire governments have been toppled thanks to social networks like Twitter and Facebook."

He said the ASMR community is just another example of how people are no longer bound by a "top down" delivery of information. Now he said, the real power lies in the ability of solitary people to find and connect with someone just like them, regardless of where they are, and how isolated they may feel.


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