The baked goods on the table came in many varieties. An artist had pulled out doughy buns and crusty loaves from High Street Market bags. She selected a soft, log-shaped loaf and set it so it would stand straight between the two microphones in front of her. And then she smashed her face into it.
When the loaf was nothing more than a lowly mash, she lifted her head and munched a little. Bread pieces stuck on her cheeks. The artist, Bread Face, has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram. The arts organization Philadelphia Contemporary invited her to appear at its Oddly Satisfying Film Festival. This was her first performance in real life. After that loaf, she proceeded to head-crush a muffin, then croissants.
The festival is the first in the city to focus fully on ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. Philadelphia Contemporary organized the two-day celebration as part of its larger event series, Festival for the People. ASMR is a phenomenon where people experience sensations from specific triggers. The acronym may refer to getting those feelings, but it's also used as a label for the subculture of videos crafted to induce them. Festival organizers welcomed teens to submit their own videos, which they're screening at Cherry Street Pier through Sunday.
The feeling of ASMR, according to a 2015 Swansea University survey, might start toward the back of one's head, then tingle its way down the spine if it's strong. Many people with ASMR say that the experience lifts moods and relieves stress. Hushed voices, light clinks, and "personal attention" were popular triggers among respondents to the Swansea study, but some survey takers also reported triggers like laughter and the hum of a vacuum. Bread Face, who is famously private so would not give her real name, likes "dry, crackling sounds" and told the audience she fell into ASMR by accident.
"I don't really have an explanation for what I do," she whispered into a microphone. "I just enjoy it."
ASMR didn't have a name until the internet. Research reveals that a 2007 health forum thread titled "weird sensation feels good" planted the seeds for more discussion. An online community began to form. Jennifer Allen, a cybersecurity specialist involved in the community, invented the term autonomous sensory meridian response in 2010. Her terminology was strategically scientific-sounding. "Tingleheads" began making trigger videos. Whisper videos caught on early.
There is a wide range of triggers captured now. Videos that show fingers slowly playing with marbles, or tapping a thick, unwrapped chocolate bar, or pressing down on honeycombs then pulling pieces to chew. In one of the submissions, a 17-year-old performer moved his hands around the camera as if to touch the viewer's face, a highly popular subtype. He whispered warmly to the camera that ASMR had changed his life for the better.
"Especially now that I'm a senior, I have a lot, a lot, a lot of tests and essays and homework," the teen said in the video. "It's just all very stressful, and ASMR helps with that."
But the neuroscience on ASMR isn't easy to sort out. A big hurdle is the noise that an MRI emits.
"To get a scan done, you'll typically have ear plugs and things to muffle the sound," Emma Barratt, coauthor of the Swansea study, said in an email. "If we were designing an experiment aiming to look at just ASMR triggers alone, that sound would likely interfere. That said, I have heard from at least one person that MRI sounds trigger their ASMR. Perhaps we'll get lucky and find a couple of people like that some day."
Some studies suggest that the experience may help with insomnia, anxiety, or depression, even drawing comparisons to mindfulness. And the videos may have a relaxing effect on those who don't get the full-blown euphoric rush.
"There is a spectrum of responses," said Craig Richard, a biopharmaceutical scientist based at Shenandoah University who both experiences and studies ASMR. Some viewers won't be swayed while watching, he said, while others may have negative responses, like feeling irritated. While ASMR erotica exists, many people in the ASMR community insist that the experience itself isn't sexual. Richard, who runs the online resource ASMR University would place it under an umbrella of relaxation techniques alongside meditation or yoga.
Glitter Slimes, an ASMRtist with more than two million followers on Instagram, expressed concerns that the microphone might not be picking up the pops of air bubbles as she manipulated toy ooze on stage. Fellow artists Lily Whispers and Julia McNamee also had concerns about sound from their presentations. McNamee, the sole presenter based in Philadelphia, noted she captures sounds precisely at home, but live that changes. Lily Whispers and McNamee started to address the audience of 70 or so with whispers, but then raised their voices to a slightly louder but still soft tone. Modulations aside, both were pleased. Lily Whispers would like to bring a similar event to Pittsburgh, where she lives.
Part of the draw of ASMR videos is that often, Richard measures, the look resembles the way a parent comforts an infant. Consider the whispered words and soft, careful touches. Many videos are shot closely around a performer's face — that reminds him of a baby's view.
"It's almost like we're born to be able to respond to stimuli from caring individuals," said Richard. "And that tells us that this person cares for us and we can trust this person. And physiologically, what happens is we relax."
Richard has noticed that the form has been popular with teens, which, he said, could be because online videos are still the primary medium. For Philadelphia Contemporary artistic director Nato Thompson, it makes sense that within the busy nature of the internet, teens might connect to extended videos designed to elicit calm. The arts organization received roughly 10 submissions, Thompson said, which is around what they expected.
The ASMRtists selected three winners, but only one was present. Anouk Ghosh-Poulshock grinned as she accepted her star-shaped trophy.
Her mother, Sunanda Ghosh, works for the arts organization. Ghosh-Poulshock has been into ASMR for roughly a year and a half, she said. At 12, she manages both an ASMR Instagram account and an Etsy boutique, Philly Slime Shop, where she sells her own slimes.