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Why watching weird YouTube videos helps me fall asleep when nothing else works

Why a video of an eye exam can relax me in a way that other sleep methods can’t, and the emerging science of autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR.

Why watching weird YouTube videos helps me fall asleep when nothing else works
[Photo: Alice Moore/Unsplash]

One of the clearest memories I have of my childhood is of when I was 8, sitting on the concrete step of the front porch with my uncle, counting pennies from my savings jar. But it’s not because of what we were doing that I remember this so well, it’s because of what I felt physically.

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The pennies from the jar were spread flat between us on the concrete. With each penny my uncle helped me count, he would say the numbers out loud and gently slide the penny across the concrete to the “counted” pile with his thick index finger. My uncle was a giant of a man: 6-foot-4 and almost 400 pounds, with a naturally gruff voice. He was also a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and because of his condition and the medication he took to treat it, he spoke slowly, stretching out most words in deep, gentle tones.

As a penny slid across the concrete porch, it made a pleasant grating sound that, when combined with my uncle’s voice, produced the oddest sensations in me. I felt a “fuzzy” warm sensation inside my skull, as if my brain was floating in a container of heated seltzer water. As my uncle continued to count and slide the pennies, the warm feeling began to extend down my spine and arms. Soon, my entire upper body was cocooned in this warmth and tingling, and I could have listened to my uncle slowly count the pennies for the rest of my life. It was, and remains to this day, one of the most euphoric sensations I have ever experienced.

It turns out I had experienced my first incident of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), though I would not find that out until earlier this year when I researched hypnosis videos on YouTube that supposedly help you sleep better. ASMR isn’t a phenomenon confirmed by science, and it’s only in recent years, after people across the world began to report their ASMR experiences on the web, that scientists have even started to study it.

Those who regularly report experiencing ASMR are known as “tingleheads.” The euphoric sense one gets during an ASMR episode is also why some people call the experience a “pleasure migraine”–you don’t want it to stop.

As for what can trigger episodes in people, it almost always involves close interaction with another person. Usually, that other person is speaking to you in soft or deep tones, and always kindly. There’s usually also a component of adjacent sound coming from an inanimate object that, in conjunction with a person’s voice, helps trigger the episode. This can be the sound of scissor blades scraping together during a haircut, the sound of someone turning magazine pages, or, in my case, the sound of pennies sliding across concrete.

In the limited, small studies that have been done investigating ASMR, there do appear to be brain abnormalities in people who experience ASMR, though this is far from confirmed. But some studies did find that people who experience the phenomenon appear to have brains that are wired differently when it comes to the areas that react to sensory perception. Instead of two sensory areas having a clear connection in their brain, a tinglehead’s sensory areas of the brain appear to blend together to some degree. Some neurologists who have studied the phenomena even think ASMR could be related to the bizarre condition of synesthesia, where a person can hear smells or see music.

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But regardless of what causes ASMR, the people who experience it always see it as a positive experience, and not just for the pleasurable aspect of it. An ASMR experience has been reported to help people cope with depression and anxiety, deal with chronic pain, and help people fall asleep easily.

Scientists don’t know enough about the phenomenon to know if everyone can become a tinglehead, or if only people who have brains wired a certain way can. In my personal experiences with ASMR, it happened most powerfully–but rarely–when talking to my uncle. However, I have also experienced less powerful ASMR episodes when getting a haircut, an eye exam, and occasionally when conversing with a significant other while we relaxed in bed.

As awareness of the ASMR phenomenon has gone more mainstream in recent years thanks to the internet, videos and entire channels dedicated to ASMR began to appear on YouTube, which is how I discovered the experience I had with my uncle had a name. It’s through these videos that both people who have had ASMR episodes in the past and tinglehead wannabes hope to replicate the experience.

The ASMR videos are easy to laugh at if you’re a casual observer–when I recently played one on my iPhone for guests at a dinner party, everyone cracked up within five seconds of watching the video. The videos usually include an attractive woman in a role-play scenario: She’s pretending to be an eye doctor, a makeup artist, or even checking hair for head lice. All videos are shot in first person, so the viewer appears to be alone in the room with the woman. And she’s usually whispering or speaking softly to you. It’s this combination of voice and the sounds from object interaction that the viewer hopes will trigger an ASMR experience.

From my experience with ASMR videos in the last three weeks, I’ve never had one trigger the kind of episode I had with my uncle. However, that doesn’t mean the ASMR videos had no benefits. The biggest, I’ve found, is that the right ASMR video works like a charm in sending me to sleep. In fact, ASMR videos seem to be better at sending me to sleep than most sleep hypnosis videos I’ve found.

So if you’re looking for a natural way to fall asleep quickly, I’d really recommend trying some ASMR videos on YouTube. Get in bed and put on a good pair of headphones (noise-canceling if you have them) and watch one of the videos in this article on your smartphone or tablet. By the time the video ends, you might be ready to drift into sleep. There have been plenty of times that I haven’t even been able to make it halfway through one of these videos before I needed to put my phone down and shut my eyes.

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You’ll feel a little silly at first, watching someone pretend to give you a haircut or eye exam, but the worst that can happen is you’ll have a good chuckle. However, many will find ASMR videos relaxing and sleep-inducing. And some lucky few might experience their first ASMR episode–and that’s an experience that you won’t want to end.

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