Touch-based ASMR videos are helping some touch-deprived people better deal with being alone.
Fans of the genre say they find the videos soothing.
For many, the last few years have been a time of isolation. A global pandemic has left us afraid, yet still craving human connection and desiring human touch.
According to a 2021 study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, being deprived of physical touch during the pandemic was associated with “worse psychological wellbeing, namely feelings of loneliness and anxiety.”
“Constantly experiencing emotions associated with being touch-starved can take a toll on your mental health and the way you think about life,” Amira Johnson, a mental and behavioral health expert and clinician, told Insider. She notes that this in turn can have long-term negative mental effects impacts that can affect personal and professional relationships.
Enter face-touching ASMR, a genre of online content that’s helping touch-deprived people relax and fall asleep.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It refers to the tingly and relaxing feeling some people experience when they hear certain sounds, like whispering or the tapping of a pencil on a desk, or scissors cutting through a sheet of paper. ASMR isn’t felt by everyone — and in fact, many people find such sensory experiences grating and anxiety-inducing. But those who have a positive response to ASMR may experience therapeutic benefits from the practice, studies have shown.
Where touch-oriented ASMR differs from traditional ASMR simulation techniques is that it focuses on incorporating the watcher more directly into the content. YouTubers might use makeup brushes to simulate brushing one’s face, or tweezers to mimic hair plucking or tweezing, or offer spa-like facials.
For some, it’s a lifeline.
Touch-based ASMR helps stave off feelings of isolation
ASMR content isn’t new — the hashtag #ASMR has more than 16.8 billion views on TikTok. But since the pandemic, this particular type of touch-oriented ASMR has exploded in popularity.
“I certainly recognize and notice how popular personal attention videos are, not only on my channel, but in the community as a whole,” said Gibi Klein, an ASMR creator whose been making ASMR content for years, and who has over four million subscribers on her channel. “Not only does it elicit ASMR in many, many viewers (myself included), it does have those extra benefits to it: a feeling of closeness, care, and a moment where the attention is on you.”
ASMR videos are generally designed to produce an intimate response, but face-touching ASMR videos are much more interactive and immersive than other types of ASMR content, says Gibi.
“The ASMRtist is addressing ‘you’ which makes the imagination portion of watching ASMR a lot easier to slip into,” she added. “Watching someone’s hands come close to your ‘face’ is a great visual because it’s interesting to follow, but is mimicking something soothing,” she adds.
According to Sarah Heilbronner, an assistant professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, much of the neural circuitry that gets activated when we touch or are touched is also activated with imagined or simulated touch.
“The gentle, caress-like touch that seems to be simulated in these videos also activates areas of the brain that respond to social cues,” she told Insider. She believes that it is “not a huge leap to imagine that the social reward of fulfilling your touch starvation might be involved here, even though both touch and the social aspects are somewhat simulated.”
“I’ve had viewers tell me they watch face-touching ASMR videos when they are feeling lonely,” said Hannah, who produces “real person” ASMR on her channel Chili B ASMR with her partner Jeremy. “With the increase of physical separation that began with Covid, and continues, many people need an outlet for physical touch.” Real-person ASMR involves having other people experience the ASMR techniques she’s employing on screen. They sometimes involve role-playing relaxing scenarios, like visiting a makeup artist or having your hair done.
“My goal is to establish a comforting environment for the viewer. It’s important they feel like they are in “good hands.” It doesn’t matter if I’m role-playing a caring doctor or a gemstone healer, as long as I make the audience believe I know what I’m doing and they don’t have to worry,” Hannah said.
Mandie Montes, 23, began watching ASMR videos around a year ago, towards the end of their senior year of college. It was a video from @itsblitzzz featuring Phoebe Bridgers that brought them to the ASMR community.
“I’m Mexican and in my culture kissing someone on the cheek, or always being hugged in a familial way that’s consensual has always been a part of my life growing up,” Montes told Insider.
Living through the pandemic and graduating from college was an anxiety-producing time for Montes, and ASMR became a salve.
“I would turn on my salt lamp, and I would just turn to ASMR, and those videos just helped me. To feel not only the presence of someone else, but to feel the presence of someone else wanting to do this, you know, and it wasn’t like a shameful thing for them.”
Montes says they particularly enjoy ASMR videos featuring hair.
“People touching your hair and playing with your hair. It just felt like a very nostalgic thing for me to turn to and also kind of feel like there’s someone else besides me,” they said.
Amira Johnson, the mental health clinician, says that face-touching ASMR videos won’t totally make up for a lack of physical touch, but they can provide an important stop-gap for some people.
“Can it fully replace skin-to-skin contact? No,” she said. “But it can give temporary relief while we are dealing with the current pandemic and other health crises.”