It’s late in the evening, and I’m getting sleepy. I’ve cozied up in bed, and it’s time for the final part of my nighttime routine: I turn on my earbuds, and start scrolling through YouTube for a video to play directly into my ears. I see a video suggested for me: “Greek Mythology Stories – Myth of Creation, Heracles, Trojan War, Odyssey (3.5 hours ASMR)”. Perfect, I think to myself. I turn the volume up and barely make it through Heracles’ first five labours before I’m asleep.
This was just a couple of weeks ago, and it marks the latest evolution in a ritual with a long history in my life: listening to something in order to fall asleep. I’ve been doing this for basically as long as I can remember, starting with simple, ambient noises like the fan in my room or the white noise setting on my alarm clock. I always found it strange at sleepovers when friends of mine would turn the lights off and fall asleep in near-absolute silence.
As far as I can tell, it has something to do with mental stimulation, and I’ve since seen people talk about this in relation to ADHD, which makes a lot of sense to me. But as a kid, I certainly didn’t think about it like that, so my experience was all trial-and-error. I figured out that it was much easier to fall asleep listening to something than to nothing, but once I had an iPod I discovered that music or podcasts were too much. Too interesting, and not necessarily relaxing.
In other words, I didn’t yet know that there was a middle ground. That changed, though, at the same time it changed for so many other people, when they discovered Bob Ross. In October of 2015, a channel on Twitch started streaming old episodes of The Joy of Painting, a show from the 80s and 90s where host Bob Ross would oil paint a landscape and narrate his techniques for viewers to follow—and even paint—along with him. Ross’s gentle voice and calm, encouraging demeanor were accompanied by the simple sounds of brushstrokes on canvas, and something about this relaxing combination attracted millions of viewers, most of whom weren’t yet born during the original airing of the show.
This is arguably speculation, but: it seems to me that the success of Bob Ross’s show on Twitch was the main catalyst in what happened next. ASMR had been a genre of video on YouTube that had been gaining traction as early as the mid 00’s, but in 2016—right after Bob Ross’s Twitch success—ASMR experienced a huge surge in popularity as people discovered that there was an audience for a type of video that was played not as primary entertainment but in the background. Some people, like Alex, found that it might help them focus while studying; while others, like me, found that it helped them drift off to sleep.
By now, years later, my history with ASMR videos is extensive. And in my expert opinion, what the term “ASMR” itself originally refers to is… sort of irrelevant to today’s version of it. If you’re curious, you can read about the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and its relatively shaky scientific basis, but suffice it to say that “ASMR” has become a catch-all label for a type of audio/video relaxation content that spans a huge range of sub-genres. Some people purportedly experience “tingles” with some consistency, but I don’t, yet I’ve found my niches all the same, and I think this is true for many regular viewers of ASMR content.
I tend to like the sound of whispering, but not unintelligible whispering. I’m not a fan of crinkling or scratching, but tapping can be okay. I don’t mind hand sounds, but anything with mouth sounds or eating is a complete no-go.
As you can probably imagine, there is also an entire category of ASMR content that steers in a more adult direction, anywhere from vaguely sensual to explicitly sexual. But to my knowledge, this is only a moderate portion of the overall ASMR content landscape, and if your goal is to focus or fall asleep, content whose purpose is to arouse you doesn’t seem especially helpful for that.
What is helpful, though, at least for me, is informative whispering videos, a genre that I discovered only recently. It started with trivia-focused whispering videos, then an instructional chess-focused channel, and finally I was recommended this Greek mythology video, which brought me into a certifiable goldmine of fascinating informative content from that same creator: videos about everything from underground cities to american railroads to fungi to black holes.
It seems to me that ASMR has, in some way, broken into the mainstream of content on the internet. And sure, I wouldn’t have guessed that a feature-length film worth of whispered mythology would be a remotely marketable video idea, much less a highly successful one. But that video has six million views. And at least a few of those are from me.
Photo copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Philip Rienstra (‘21) majored in writing and music and has plans to pursue a career in publishing. They are a recovering music snob, a fruit juice enthusiast, and a big fan of the enneagram. They’re currently living in St. Paul with their spouse, Heidi.