One of my earliest childhood memories involves dragging my pillow and blanket into our living room and arranging them in front of the big, boxy Magnavox TV just in time to turn on The Joy of Painting. I loved the host, Bob Ross, but not for his mad painting skills. I loved him for his voice, which was as soft as his fluffy signature hair. Every time I heard it, it would literally give me chills — the same kind you get from someone playing with your hair or gently scratching your back — and I’d fall asleep quickly.
It was the only time I didn’t fight nap time tooth and nail, so I’m sure my mom must have loved Bob Ross too. There was just something about the way he spoke — slowly, lightly, deliberately, and the tap-tap of his brushes against the canvas — that my preschool self found irresistibly soothing. I just napped better when Bob Ross put me to sleep.
Fast-forward a few decades and picture this: The long, boring wait in the school pickup line. As I was scrolling through Facebook, I opened up an article about a woman named Maria who made relaxation videos. The article linked to one of them — a brief tutorial of her folding towels into various decorative arrangements. It only showed her hands, and the subject matter wasn’t the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. But as soon as I heard her speak, it was like I’d fallen into a time warp. I was no longer a 30-something mom in a minivan; I was a 4-year-old getting ready to nap to the sweet sounds of Bob Ross — because this towel-folding lady, and her soft Russian accent, had the same mesmerizing effect on me.
Rather than nod off right there in the school parking lot, I bookmarked her YouTube channel (aptly named GentleWhispering). When I finally climbed into bed that night, I turned on the video again and dropped my phone on my face when I dozed off. But after that little snafu, I slept like a baby, or you know, like a Bob Ross-enchanted preschooler.
Come to find out, Maria is just one of a long list in a community of people who call themselves “ASMRtists.” ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response — in layman’s terms, the “tingles” or relaxed feeling some people get from hearing certain sounds or “triggers.” Although the phenomenon has been around for a while, people are just now getting around to giving it a name. It hasn’t been extensively researched (more recently, increasing attention is being paid to it in scientific and psychological studies), but the ever-growing community of ASMRtists makes videos designed to lull listeners to sleep.
The towel-folding video was one of Maria’s first. Now she has reached over one million subscribers. So I’m not the only one on this train — clearly.
ASMR videos are typically soft-spoken or whispered and often involve the person doing something calm and mundane like applying makeup or reading passages of a book, nothing so interesting or action-packed that it wouldn’t put you to sleep. For some people, the feeling isn’t brought on by hushed voices but also by sounds, so there are also videos with no talking at all, just the crinkling of paper, the swishing of brushes, the tapping of nails on hard surfaces, an entire symphony of choices to suit any preference.
There are also role-plays, where you’re the recipient of a spa treatment or the passenger on an intergalactic spacecraft (yes, really) or a ton of other interesting scenarios — they get very creative. There are ASMR videos in other languages too. I don’t speak French, but some of my favorite videos are the French-language videos of another ASMRtist, MissASMR. And whether I understand what she’s saying or not, the result is the same. English, Russian, Japanese, Armenian — take your pick.
The feeling has been described as a “brain orgasm,” though that’s a really misleading term because there’s absolutely nothing sexual about it. For me, it’s just a champagne-bubble feeling that ripples along my scalp, the kind that would induce goosebumps. Others feel it in the shoulders or spine. And some who experience it don’t get the tingly feeling at all, just a profound sense of calm. It’s highly subjective.
And some people don’t feel anything at all except for complete puzzlement that someone could actually enjoy this kind of thing. It isn’t everybody’s bag.
It knocks me right out, though, and so I figured it couldn’t hurt to try it with my kids. Sure enough, they like the sound of whispering just as much as I do. The Towel Lady, as they call GentleWhispering Maria, is a saving grace on nights when they just won’t settle. As a bonus, having a voice in their rooms makes them feel less alone — kind of the way a nightlight does— and more inclined to stay in their own beds. WIN.
It’s also great for covering the sound of a snoring partner, which is why you can find me every night with my earbuds in, blissfully unaware of the fact that my husband is inhaling the drapes beside me.
Ironically, as I was researching this fascinating phenomenon, I came across a comment made by Bob Ross himself during a rare 1990 interview with the Orlando Sentinel — long before ASMR was a culturally recognized thing. “We’ve gotten letters from people who say they sleep better when the show is on,” he said. So that confirms what I suspected all along: I’m not the only one who’s been a lifelong ASMR fan. All you ‘70s and ‘80s babies who dozed off to Bob Ross, holla!
Or, actually, whisper. It’s much nicer that way.