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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 7th September 2018 > THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON NOTHING


Hundreds of thousands of people are turning to WEIRD, WHISPERING VIDEOS to rel ieve stress. One scient ist is determined to understand why

CRAIG RICHARD COULD NOT STOP WATCHING Bob Ross paint. It was 1983, and Ross’s television show, The Joy of Painting, had recently premiered on PBS. Richard, then in his early teens, would come home from school in Massachusetts, flip on the TV, and settle in as the painter brought clouds, mountains and “happy little trees” to life on a blank canvas.

Ross famously narrated his creative process in a voice that topped out at a murmur. “There was something hypnotic and calming about it,” Richard recalls. “I would put a pillow down on the floor and end up dozing off halfway through one of his paintings. I don’t think I ever saw him finish one.”

During viewings, Richard often felt a euphoric, tingly sensation in his head and upper body. It reminded him of the inexplicably relaxing pleasure he felt overhearing his younger sister learning to read. “When she would sound out the words in her gentle little voice, I would fall asleep.”

It would be 30 years before Richard learned this sensation had a name. He grew up, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University in Virginia. Then, around 2013, he was listening to a podcast when the hosts began explaining something called “ASMR.” People who experienced it, Richard recalls them explaining, “tended to really like Bob Ross. It caused them to have head tingles. I was like, Oh!”

Widely enjoyed but little understood, ASMR, short for autonomous sensory meridian response, refers to this euphoric feeling, which can be experienced in a variety of ways; triggers can be aural, touch-based or both. “For me, soft, soothing sounds such as pages being turned, or someone writing on paper with a pencil or any gentle rustling sounds elicit a response,” says Karen Schweiger, who runs an integrative healing touch therapy practice in New Jersey. The sensation can also arise from situations in which a person is receiving close, gentle attention. “Having my hair washed or brushed,” says Schweiger, “the feeling of a makeup brush moving over my face and the sound of a cat purring against me are just a few.”

ASMR mania has flourished in internet communities and whisper-themed YouTube channels since roughly 2010, when the term was coined by a health care manager named Jennifer Allen, who founded the first ASMR-themed Facebook group. Now, Richard is emerging as its most devoted chronicler. In 2014, he launched the ASMR Research Project, which has surveyed more than 20,000 individuals, as well as the website, which obsessively tracks related research.

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