More than 22 million people have watched Becky Celeste eat 20 McDonalds chicken nuggets, a medium fries and an unsweetened iced tea on YouTube. Over two million watched her scoff an enormous bowl of marshmallow cereal. Since she launched her YouTube channel, Hungry Cakes, in 2011, she’s had more than 100 million views as people watch – and, crucially, listen to – her eat. She films her videos, which often last for 17 minutes or more, at home with soft lighting and a cheap microphone that picks up every munch, crunch and chew. She is just one of a staggering number of YouTubers embracing ASMR.
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, and it’s a relaxing, tingling sensation some people get when they listen to certain sounds, like whispering or eating. Some people switch them on to put them to sleep. Not everyone gets it – I certainly don’t. In fact, the sound of someone eating or slurping has the opposite effect on me. I find it far from relaxing; I have misophonia, which is rage triggered by sound. In my case, it can be the crunch of a stranger’s apple on the Tube or the squelch of a Tesco sandwich being devoured by a co-worker. So these videos baffle and repulse me, but I am utterly fascinated by them. I wish I could fall asleep watching strangers eat food on the internet – what an easily, endlessly accessible cure for insomnia. Alas, it is not for me.
According to Dr Sarah Brewer, around 70 per cent of the population can experience ASMR, leaving the remaining 30 per cent as perplexed as I am. Carphone Warehouse asked 475 people who engaged in ASMR why they did it and found that 98 percent used ASMR for relaxation, helping them to sleep and deal with stress. Celeste discovered the feeling herself when she watched American TV chef Rachael Ray making steak and all she could hear was the sizzle. It gave her goosebumps, especially if she listened to the sounds of the kitchen with binaural headphones. Now, she plays ASMR while she does chores and she knows that a lot of her viewers use her videos to relax.
“I get a lot of comments on my videos from people who watch them to fall asleep, from students who watch while they study and from people who are eating by themselves and like the company,” Celeste says. “I get a lot of pregnant women, too, who can’t eat certain foods but like to watch me doing it. I’ve also heard from people with eating disorders, who say watching me eat has helped them.”
Celeste is now heavily pregnant and on maternity leave from her full-time job working as a therapist for children with autism. She plans to stay at home with the baby, though, which will be financed by a “significant income” from her ASMR food videos. Her husband was staggered when the first round of money from Google Ads came through and, though she keeps her ASMR career a secret from some friends, her family know and support her “weird habit”.
These videos baffle and repulse me, but I am utterly fascinated by them
“What we do is weird, I know that,” she says. “I’ve always been an oddball, I don’t fit in to any mould in society. But I’ve found a community though ASMR videos and I’m going to keep doing it. Reading the comments on my videos, I know I’m helping people – people from all over the world, of all ages, men and women. I find it fascinating and weird and wonderful.”
You know what? So do I. Dr Nick Davis, senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester University, who has written papers on ASMR, shares my fascination. He’s not into food videos himself, but he thinks he may get that ASMR feeling when he gets a haircut and someone massages his scalp. “It’s something that’s intimate but not sexual, and I think that’s what this is. Although I should say that I’m sure some people do view these videos in a sexual way,” he says.
“When people get this tingling feeling on their skin watching an ASMR video, I’d speculate that it’s the same feeling an ape gets when he’s groomed by another ape. It’s a positive association with another person. To me, these food videos make sense because food is nurturing and eating is a gesture of care. Watching someone eat comfort food, especially something savoury and fatty, is comforting.”
Davis tells me he doesn’t yet know exactly what’s going on in the brain when we feel ASMR. “It could be similar to what we call the ‘flow state’, when we feel in control without effort, but really we haven’t worked out yet what the body is doing when it reacts like this. It’s still a bit of a mystery.”
An extremely popular, highly profitable mystery for people like Becky; a tantalising, reassuring mystery for the millions of people who watch her. Truly, it’s impossible to judge here, because if watching someone eat takes you to a zen place in this increasingly tense world, go for it – watch as many as humanly possible.