On any given night, I might fall asleep to soft-spoken prattle from a grown man pretending to be a magic purple fairy. Or perhaps I'll drift off as a ponytailed blonde role-plays an outer-space travel agent selling me intergalactic vacation packages. Either way, as my iPhone rests beside me on my pillow, I'll feel a relaxing, slow-moving tingling sensation in my scalp—say, when the pink-eyeshadowed travel agent leans in, purses her lips, and asks me, in a gentle, enunciated whisper, "Are you looking to go exo- or stay inner solar?" Before I have time to contemplate the weirdness of her request, I'll be drooling.
Before you peg me as some sort of Internet fetish enthusiast, let me explain. Last winter, during a particularly exhausting stretch at work, I'd flop into bed just as the death metal singer at the bar downstairs from my apartment commenced his guttural screaming. I tried all the sleep-inducing tricks I could think of: dim lights, calming hot tea, a noise machine that sounded like an army of jabbering crickets. But no amount of Celestial Seasonings could lull me into slumber. Then one night I decided to search online for relaxation videos. This produced sterile waterfalls, classical music—and Ilse. Pretty, with no makeup and charmingly crooked teeth, Ilse breathed her channel's name in a soft Dutch accent—"The Waaaterwhissspers Ilse"—and a tickly feeling spread through my scalp, a burst of prickly warmth followed by a sense of deep relaxation. She leaned into the camera, pretending to examine my pores and give me a facial. Whoa, sister, I thought. But then something even stranger happened. My arm went slack; I was snoring within minutes.
I soon learned that Ilse is part of a vast online "whisper community." Her videos are labeled ASMR, short for autonomous sensory meridian response. This is the term that self-professed "tingleheads" use to describe what I felt when Ilse "cleansed" my forehead with a cotton pad, making a soft scratching sound into her microphone. And the sensation I felt when, the next night, I stumbled upon Ashlie, who softly narrated her actions as she brushed a friend's hair. Ashlie's video was 22 minutes long, but I was conscious for only the first two.
It seems that not everyone can experience ASMRs. But for those of us who feel them (the videos have racked up millions of views on YouTube), it matters little that science has yet to find a biological explanation or even affirm that they exist. For me, discovering ASMR put a name to a sensation I'd experienced occasionally throughout my life without ever knowing why. Everyone has different triggers. I've learned that mine include whispers, accents, crinkling candy wrappers, gentle handling of valuable objects, and spa role-play. While I sometimes feel sheepish clicking on these low-budget, banal, slightly perverse sleep aids, the feeling—fuzzy-tipped, hypnotic, like a soft rainforest shower straight to the skull—soon erases every thought in my mind.
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From the February 2014 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!