THE NEW ONLINE FETISH ... LISTENING TO THE SHEXY SHCOTTISH ACCENT
BY KARIN GOODWIN
ELSA bends her perfectly coiffed head to her microphone and whispers with care “peely-wally”. She pauses and adds, sotto voce: “That means pale and sickly in appear- ance.”
The 40-minute video entitled “Teaching you Scottish slang for tingles” has gained more than one-quarter of a million views since it was posted in January, and is part of a vast, growing 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 me- ridian 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 workout. Triggers for “tingles” include the aforementioned whispering, the close personal attention of an eye test, watching someone performing mundane tasks like folding towels, the sensations of certain foods in the mouth like mashed potatoes, and repeated sounds like tapping or the turning of pages.
The “fetish” has now become a 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 give her second name, set up her ASMR channel in November last year. She now has more than 20,000 subscribers and has clocked up over one million views of videos such as “Leafing Through the Concise Scots Dictionary”.
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.”
Other Scottish ASMR stars joining the burgeoning online community include Scottish ASMR Blueberry, and ASMR Scotsman. Lauren, 22, also from Glasgow, set up her Scottish Murmurs ASMR channel in July last year after leaving university and now has more than 56,000 subscribers and 5,281,572 views. She is earning almost £1,000 a month through advertising.
She, too, has made playful videos of Gaelic words and Scottish slang, and her role-play videos – a classic in the ASMR genre – are also big hits. In “Helping You Sleep” – which has had more than 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.
“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.”
Ross McCulloch, director of Third Sector Lab, which offers digital services to charities, claims it is 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.
BUT is the sensation real? Dr Nick Davis, now senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, co-authored the first ASMR peer-reviewed research nearly two years ago at Swansea University and claims 80 per cent 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. 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 it’s about bonding. “You might speculate it’s why apes perform social grooming rituals,” he adds.
Now 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,” says Davis.
There is a darker side of ASMR, with some claiming the videos, which largely feature young, beautiful women, can be disturbingly fetishistic. 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 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 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 it is an internet-wide problem.”
More research to explain the mechanisms behind the process will help destigmatise it, she claims, and there is an increasing number of academics in both the US and the UK working on that. But whatever the mechanisms, for the millions out there logging on, it’s all about the tingles.
Lauren set up YouTube channel Scottish Murmurs after she left university, and is now making £1,000 a month from it Photograph: Stewart Atwood