ASMR: Reality Through Fiction

Matthew Tannam-Elgie speaks to Caylyn Hicks, an "ASMRtist" with an ever-increasing fan base.

Psychology has long been a polarising field of study. People who understand it and practice it in a way that genuinely helps others are frequently outnumbered by those who make it seem like a pseudo-science. Even more polarising is the phenomenon of ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. The idea is that various sounds, triggers and imaginary roleplays can create pleasant “tinglings” in the brain in a manner similar to meditation or a placebo effect.

Recently, people known as “ASMRtists” have started delivering these sounds, triggers and imaginary roleplays to swathes of subscribers on YouTube. They receive countless views and their latest content is perpetually shaped by popular demand.

One such “ASMRtist” is Caylyn Hicks, known as XxtrahASMR on YouTube. Caylyn has made various ASMR roleplays, often incorporating make-up sessions or impersonations of barbers, dentists and many more. Her burgeoning subscriber count is reminiscent of a market boom’s early stages; it’s just started, but when it gets going there will undoubtedly be a thunderstorm of mania.

So, I decided to ask her a few questions before the storm sets in. Well, “a few questions” would be an understatement. My plan was to delve into ASMR, the blending of reality and fiction and the fervour Caylyn receives from her followers. It’s quasi-religious, no doubt, and it must stem from something archaic.

 “I’m not going to say they ‘follow” me, or anything like that,’ she said. “But I feel like if it’s helping people, whether that’s being calm or being relaxed, or getting away from a stressful day or stressful situation, then I’m all for it.”

 Caylyn expressed a genuine desire to lift people’s spirits and cast a brutal line between the good and the bad in this small world;

“I love ASMR, I love what I do, I just love being to able to help people. It’s a very beautiful thing.”

However, I couldn’t help but detect a curious difference between the woman I was speaking to and the woman in the ASMR videos. It was almost like I was talking to an entirely different person. I brought this up tentatively, having already been convinced that this is a staple feature of celebrity culture, whether in its mature or infantile stages. Surely she must have had some sort of acting experience?

“I had a family member and we would play out little scenes when we were younger, and that’s pretty much all the experience I’ve had... I would actually consider taking classes to make myself much better. But no, I’ve never actually had any experience in acting.”

Amazing! I slammed my fist on the desk, a searing pain shooting through my fingers in a split-second. I’d been trying my luck at acting for years, only to take a break following the nightmare that was 2019. At the moment, I’m hibernating in a quagmire of confusion. It’s an ideological apocalypse; my assumptions about the world have been collapsing all around me in a fiery inferno for the past few months.

But I didn’t go into that much detail. Instead, we continued with our little chat.

“ASMR creates a very calming type of effect,” she explained. “It helps people with anxiety, it helps people with insomnia, depression, stress. It has even helped me with grief... It’s very beneficial to anyone who may be struggling with anything.”

The story behind her discovery of ASMR was interesting, to say the least.

 “I had just dealt with the loss of my grandmother. I couldn’t sleep, it was going on about three days... And I saw this meme where they were basically making a mockery out of ASMR, and I’m like ‘OK, what is this?’ So I go onto YouTube, and I found the video of the person they were mocking. And next thing I know, I was actually asleep, and I was like ‘Wow! This thing actually works!”

 “You know, Caylyn,” I exclaimed, lounging around in my chair and staring up at the ceiling. “When somebody dies...”

 She nodded, fully comprehending this otherwise bizarre digression. I was talking brashly, still banging on about the horror of my father’s recent death as if I were talking about a distant tragedy. If you experience trauma to a certain degree, you feel considerably detached from the nightmare you’re recounting.

She spoke with a genuine sincerity.

“Make your father proud. I understand that you’re grieving, but every day just believe that he’s proud of you, and keep doing what you’re doing. It can definitely get tough, I have both my parents, so I can’t necessarily relate to that, but I have lost people who made a huge impact on my life. It’s a struggle every day, but I just think about them and I use them as motivation to make them proud and to be happy. They see us; he sees you and he’s very proud of what you do. Just keep going.”

A long silence ensued. Well, half of it was shock in light of the fact that I find it incredibly difficult to comprehend my father’s death. The other half was the cub reporter’s natural habit to stay silent and thus to coax more words from the interviewee. No more words were needed, however, and neither are they needed here.

Make up your own mind about whether ASMR works or not. But don’t forget the fact that human nature will always be grief’s best remedy. To hear other people talk about your tragedy allows you to start coming to terms with the recent calamity. Essentially, it’s putting indescribable emotions into a coherent form for you to experience. From a clinical perspective, it helps people in ways that are not dissimilar from ASMR.

That’s the grand intention behind ASMR; to support strangers from all walks of life. Although it’s often accompanied by performance, this support leads multitudes back to reality in a manner more therapeutic than dramatic. That’s only discernible, of course, once you encounter the exalted artist behind the curtain.