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Bob Ross: king of the tingles

Ever heard a careless whisper and had a tingly, non-sexual head orgasm? It's the “Bob Ross effect”, or ASMR

There's a Bob Ross drinking game for the tens of fans who religiously watched PBS's downtempo paint-by-numbers program The Joy of Painting. Ross introduces a proper colour? Drank (Van Dyke Brown is our fav). Ross says something "lives" somewhere? Drank. Ross beats his brush on the easel? Shiver. What you’ve just experienced is an auto-sensory meridian response (ASMR for short). It’s a head-to-toe experience; a pleasurable tingling sensation that begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine to the extremities. While inherently non-sexual, it is occasionally referred to as a head orgasm.

These bod-numbing quivers have long since been felt, but only now are they being fully explored, sampled by Deadmau5, and tweeted about by Kat Dennings. Entire Reddit communities have sprouted around ASMR. Discussions have been had about ASMR at London's LimaZulu project space. Tingleheads are creating stimulating videos at an alarming pace to keep up with demand. What sets it off? Common triggers include a scrolling credits list of stimuli to rival the side effects of a GlaxoSmithKline drug: slow speech patterns, whispering, watching other people perform simple tasks… And Bob Ross. The godfather of ASMR. The quintessential ASMRtist. The Alaskan hippy who paints “happy little trees” and – in one of his most beloved pastimes – “beats the devil” out of his old brush.

The Joy of Painting celebrated its 31st birthday just last week, and Ross's whispers and happy little accidents continue to find a new audience. “Bob Ross's painting show is probably the quintessential ASMR program as his soft-spoken voice, his audible brush strokes and his seemingly personal attention all trigger the tingles in many people, myself included,” explains Reddit user and ASMR-hedonist Loreseekers. “I remember when I was younger actually intentionally tuning in to his show in order to produce those tingles. I knew I got them while watching the programme even though I had no idea what the experience was called and even thought myself odd or even crazy for having them in the first place.”

“I knew I got them while watching the programme even though I had no idea what the experience was called and even thought myself odd or even crazy for having them in the first place” – Reddit user Loreseekers

Ross, with his meticulous instruction, slowly dissolves that fourth wall as he turns to the camera to soliloquize while replenishing his brush with yellow ochre. “I believe the reason he's become the god of ASMR is because, while some things unintentionally trigger it (like Shopping Networks, for example), they typically trigger it in only one way, possibly two," concludes another Reddit user who goes by the name of srirachagoodness. "The careful instruction, the soft voice, the sounds of the brush hitting the canvas: Bob Ross was unknowingly triggering people all over the place with just about everything he did on the show. And even people who don't experience ASMR can agree that Bob Ross's voice is relaxing as all get-out.”

Relaxation is written in the ASMR policy, with whispering being its main vehicle of delivery. One sound designer even used Bob Ross's vanilla vocals as a sample in a controlled ASMR experiment (the results can be seen here). He concluded that "ASMR Speakers have uncannily similar pause:speech ratios. On average, ASMR speakers are pausing 48.28 percent of the time." Perhaps that's why The Joy of Painting was novel – its only editing prevalent in the cross dissolves between Ross and his glorious chef d'oeuvres. The recipe for a "head orgasm" seems, then, pretty straightforward: a pinch of frequent pause, a dash of whisper, and a shade of calm will have you quaking.

More and more people are self-diagnosing their tingly sensations, and ASMR has started to climb the ladder of popular culture. Most recently, Spike Jonze's Oscar-nominated Her features a bodiless OS with a slinky voice (Scarlett Johansson). The main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with her sultry whisper. Even when a careless whisper is not meant to induce any sexual feelings, some people find it quite seductive. “I do search actively for videos. Specifically whispering videos,” says Reddit user WhisperingLizzy. "The best way I can describe tingles, for me at least, is just... Brain melting. I know that sounds silly but, it's like getting a massage for the brain."

Deptford trio Drop Out Venus mentioned ASMR as the ultimate hangover cure in our interview with them. "There are ASMR videos on YouTube that will soothe any pain out of you. You'll either be creeped out or watch it every night. It's a bunch of girls doing roleplays of various things that mentally-different people find soothing. There is one Russian girl called Maria Gentlewhispering and the last video she did was of herself stroking tiny cotton balls and talking softly about how good it felt. That does it for me."

I would go amiss if I didn't give any air time to the best ASMRtists currently creating: ASMRrequests, MassageASMR, and Ephemeral Rift are all appropriate starting points for the newly initiated. Some cam artists simply whisper at their audience, with others going so far as to role play, creating new characters and worlds for their viewers. There's even a legion of fans taking the scenic route in Reddit's /r/SlowTV – a one-stop shop for loooooong videos (of bacon sizzling, of waves lapping shores…) that can set off this response. So with all that's now out there, both in the community and on the silver screen, why Bob Ross? "He just seems like a kind, trusting person who's voice is just oh so soothing that it could put a mama bear protecting its cubs to sleep. He unintentionally brought ASMR to the masses, before we ever had a name to what the sensation was!" explains EmannuelASMR.

Watching paint dry may be a trigger for some, but Bob Ross's cloud-esque afro, disarming voice and positive outlook on life adds that extra layer that, while simply relaxing for most, for the hedonistic ASMR community and those discovering what it truly means to tingle, it's a go-to trigger. It's a clean fix. It's a "happy little accident".