I can think of a scant few nights in recent years when sleep wasn’t induced by soporific horse pills. The “natural” stuff—chamomile tea, breathing exercises, meditation podcasts—has the same effect on me as drinking warm milk: it does nothing.
Sure, routinely gulping down handfuls of pills can’t possibly be good for me, but fellow insomniacs know the sleepless alternative is far worse. Even mild sleep deprivation renders me slow-witted and paranoid, as though I’ve taken a half-dozen bong hits. I spend waking hours in a fog of delirium, punctuated by uncontrollable giggle fits, heart palpitations, and mental anguish. Fatigue feels heavy, like I am trudging through life with a 300-pound man on my back.
So it was with both skepticism and curiosity that I approached the “sleep whisperers”—a bizarre subset of YouTube stars who are inducing sleep with ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) triggers, like the sounds of crinkling paper or scratching canvas. ASMR is an elusive neurological phenomenon; it’s that tingling sensation in the back of the head—a kind of orgasm of the brain—prompted by visual, aural, and tactile stimuli. (Think of watching PBS landscape painter Bob Ross, who entranced viewers with his hypnotic, sing-song voice and silly but soothing aphorisms like “happy little trees.”) And some people swear by it as a way of achieving deep relaxation, which members of the sleeping elite must feel during their blissful descent into la-la-land.
Indeed, a cottage industry has sprung up around the ASMR phenomenon, with YouTube sleep whisperers like 25-year-old Ilse Blansert catering to desperate insomniacs. Blansert, who refers to herself as an “ASMR artist,” has experienced tingling sensations since she was a child, triggered by schoolmates whispering in her ear or tickling her back. “Sometimes I would even zone out completely,” she writes on her website, WaterWhisperers. She thought she had a rare gift because “others around me didn’t experience that relaxing feeling.” In high school, she began looking for tingling triggers on the Internet, but it wasn’t until 2011 that she stumbled upon a community of ASMR YouTubers. A year later she launched her site, which currently has 114,000 subscribers and was recently featured on ABC News and The Daily Mail.
But the Dutch-born Blansert has plenty of competition among YouTube’s sleep whispering stars, most of whom are also young, unassumingly pretty women with Eastern European accents. Their videos feature variations of the same routines: sensual role-play with viewers, which involves cooing into the camera while pretending to be dermatologists, make-up artists, or physicians; a woman’s long fingers tapping, scratching, and massaging various inanimate objects; two hands painstakingly assembling a flower crown.
While there’s no scientific evidence of ASMR’s effects on the brain, neurological experts have begun looking into the phenomenon. Yale University neurologist Steven Novella has compared it to migraine headaches: “We know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history,” he writes on his blog, adding that ASMR demonstrates how our “brains are fantastically complex and weird.” Novella, a well-known practitioner of scientific skepticism, says that while “we are not completely sure at this time, it seems reasonable to proceed with the working assumption that ASMR is a real thing.”
I've tried everything to summon the Sandman, so I had nothing to lose from watching Blansert’s videos. Her hushed incantations weren’t going to shut down my liver or poison my kidneys, unlike some other concoctions I’ve consumed to knock myself out over the years, so I settled into my couch and queued up the most popular video on Blansert’s website—an hour-long compilation of ASMR triggers with nearly 924,000 clicks on YouTube.
There was something vaguely creepy about by my elfin sleep whisperer, with her doe eyes, dulcet smile, and slow, deliberate way of speaking. Who was this glossy-lipped woman whispering nonsense into the camera, trying to seduce me with her batting eyelashes and softly clicking tongue, while gently running her fingertips down the side of her neck?
She trained the camera on three glasses placed beneath separate microphones and filled them with water, each producing different sounds in the glass—a bass-note plonk in one, a high-pitched plink in another. My muscles began to slacken, my shoulders dropped. And I’m pretty sure I felt tingles when Blansert scratched the grainy surface of a hardcover book, pausing to tap-tap-tap the edges with her long fingernails.
I was convinced ASMR would quiet my mind as much as that $10 meditation podcast I bought last year, which left me staring at the ceiling, counting my head-pounding obsessions like sheep, and a little lighter in the wallet. But the YouTube videos were like aural Xanax. An hour in, my eyelids were heavy. But were they heavy because it was 2 AM and I was exhausted by the boredom of watching my sleep whisperer trace the headlines of a Dutch newspaper? (Oh how I wish I read Dutch.) Or would this boredom precipitate effortless slumber?
Blansert’s videos didn’t affect me as they affected Emily Hansen of Houston, Texas, who told ABC she was “hooked” to ASMR (“I get so connected [to the videos] that I just fall asleep. I mean I just conk out”). I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t conk out. But they did something. One night, while watching Blansert trace the contours of her palm, I began unwittingly mimicking her motions on the bottom of my foot. That fuzzy voice which was so foreign three nights ago suddenly felt like a quilted hug.
The woo-woo had gotten to me. I was a skeptical convert.
So when the pill bottle is empty, the sun is inching toward the horizon, and panic about another day of lethargy looms, I have a soothing alternative to heavy-duty pharmaceuticals: my soft-voiced Dutch friend, pretending she is selling me face creams and skin scrubs, gently lulling me to sleep.