The host of one of the most popular YouTube channels for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response demonstrates some of her techniques. (Maria/GentleWhispering)

The pretty blond woman is plucking at the bristles of a hairbrush with gold-manicured fingertips, tapping her nails softly against the wooden handle as she holds it close to a microphone. Bathed in soft lighting, she smiles knowingly into the video camera, as if sharing a secret.

“The tapping sounds remind me of the sound of the rain,” she breathes in a subtly accented whisper.

This is Maria, a 28-year-old Russian expat in suburban Maryland, starring in a YouTube video that has been viewed more than 7 million times. Hundreds of thousands of Maria’s devotees return again and again to listen to her hushed whispers as she assumes simulated roles — librarian, hairstylist, masseuse — and performs simple motions: folding towels, blowing smoke from an incense burner, flipping through the pages of a magazine.

It might sound like a bafflingly bizarre way to spend time on the Internet. But for Maria’s viewers, her voice and movements hold a certain magic: They can instill tranquillity, overcome insomnia — and induce a mysterious physical sensation known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, wherein the body is flooded with waves of euphoric tingles.

“It’s like showers of sparkles,” says Maria, speaking as herself. “It’s like warm sand being poured all over you, trickling over your head and down into your shoulders. It’s like goosebumps on your brain.”

Maria, a.k.a. the Gentle Whisperer, produces YouTube videos that induce autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a tingling sensation, in some viewers. (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)

ASMR is described as a pleasurable tingling that begins in the head and scalp, shimmies down the spine and relaxes the entire body. Maria — she asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons; her videos have sometimes attracted unwanted attention — experiences ASMR, and her YouTube channel, GentleWhispering, melds her personal tingle-triggers with others suggested by her fans. The resulting videos have drawn more than 87 million views, making Maria the premier celebrity of a controversial but increasingly recognized phenomenon.

But she’s not after exposure or money, she says. Videos by other “ASMRtists” once helped her through a period of depression, and now she wants to pay it forward.

From her experience, Maria feels sure that there’s more to ASMR than just the stimulating images and sounds. Maybe watching a woman folding clothes reminds you of your mother. Maybe the undivided attention of a masseuse or a stylist makes you feel cared for. Maybe, amid the din of daily life, there is solace in simple sounds.

“Little taps and crinkles, or the way certain thicker pages create the most amazing sound when they turn — many times we miss that,” Maria says. “There are these beautiful little things that we don’t pay attention to.”

That’s one way to explain why someone would watch a 20-minute video with no real plot, no denouement, no emotional complexity. On their face, the videos are stiflingly boring.

But millions are riveted. Something is happening here.

A calming whisper

When she first felt it, she had no idea what it was. In kindergarten in central Russia, Maria and her friends would sometimes tickle each other gently, running their fingers over the skin of their forearms. For Maria, the experience was transcendent, sending a cascade of goosebumps over her head and down her back: “I would be left in a zombie-like state,” she says. “I would just be so relaxed.”

She soon discovered other triggers. A teacher who whispered instructions while turning the pages of a textbook left her mesmerized. So did the crinkle of paper, a hairbrush against her scalp, soft tapping, murmured sibilance.

In 2009, three years after moving to the United States, Maria struggled with depression as she and her husband went through a divorce. While searching for relaxation videos to help her sleep one night, she clicked a suggested link, titled simply “whisper.”

“And as soon as I heard the lady’s voice, I just got showered with tingles,” Maria says. “It was so great.”

She saw that dozens of other viewers had left comments describing a similar reaction. That’s when she realized she wasn’t alone.

The discovery was life-changing, she says. Whenever she felt stressed by her administrative job at a medical company, she watched a “whisper” video to calm down. And when she spoke in gentle tones, she realized that she could provide the same feeling for others.

She noticed that some of her employer’s clients often asked her to show them product catalogues, although they rarely bought anything. “They would just keep asking me questions and I would keep flipping pages, and they would just zone out and stare at me,” she says with a shy laugh.

She made her first ASMR video in February 2011, filming herself as she leafed through a journal and played with seashells. The video logged just two views in a month, and Maria was so disappointed that she deleted it. A few months later, she tried again; this time, there were a few encouraging comments. She kept at it, and by the end of the year, she had 30,000 subscribers. Nearly three years later, she has more than 300,000.

She has invested in her craft, upgrading to top-notch binaural microphones that carry every exhale into a listener’s ears as if Maria is standing beside them. Her videos, like most ASMR recordings, are undeniably intimate. But the intended response — although often described as “brain orgasms” — is not sexual, ASMR enthusiasts insist. (Unsurprisingly, a few of the creepier online comments insist otherwise.)

Maria is hardly the only ASMRtist with an impressive fan base. Her YouTube page offers a lengthy list of other recommended video-bloggers, known as vloggers, whom she considers friends rather than competitors. Variety, she says, is necessary to maintain one’s sensitivity to ASMR.

“The more people who create the content, the less immunity there will be for everyone,” she says. “We want you to try other videos so you can come back to us. So it’s more of a partnership between all of us.”

But it’s still a business, particularly for ASMRtists who hold to a strict programming schedule, solicit PayPal donations or offer one-on-one Skype sessions for a fee. Maria declined to specify her income but says that she holds a part-time administrative job and doesn’t earn enough from online ads to make a living off her videos alone — mainly because she doesn’t want her vlogging to become an obligatory burden. She’ll post a new video once per week or once per month, depending on how busy she is.

“I’ve realized that I just cannot do it as a job; I almost start to resent it,” she says. “If this is the only thing I have to do, it’s going to be very hard to do it on the genuine level I want.”

Off-camera, Maria’s voice is a little louder, her presence a little bubblier, her demeanor just as kind. Her boyfriend, Darryl, whom she met through the ASMR community, says that this is what drew him to Maria and what attracts her other friends and fans. “There’s a caring and a love that comes through,” he says. “That’s really how she is.”

Maria blushes. “Maybe it’s just that I’m looking for companionship,” she says. “Most of the time, when I look at the camera, I try to think that this is my friend . . . my family.”

An array of triggers

ASMR videos are kind of like those Magic Eye 3-D images: If you experience the intended effect, the sense of depth can be dazzling. If you don’t, it’s like staring at an uninspired Jackson Pollock knockoff. So the ASMR community has understandably drawn plenty of side-eye from those for whom a hairbrush is just a hairbrush.

But the phenomenon has nonetheless burst into the mainstream, thanks to mounting media coverage and a few high-profile references: “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon gushed to Conan O’Brien about her “head orgasms,” induced by the methodical touch of airport security pat-downs; novelist Andrea Seigel shared her experience with ASMR on the radio program “This American Life” last year; the “Dr. Oz” show has featured ASMR videos as a way to ease insomnia.

This year, electronic dance music DJ Deadmau5 released a track titled “Terrors in My Head” that samples Maria’s recordings: “Good morning to you,” drones an eerily soothing, computerized version of Maria’s voice, as if waking interstellar travelers from cryogenic sleep.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of commenters continue to inundate blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook and Reddit forums with their ASMR experiences:

This has been happening since I was a kid and I’ve always been drawn to certain sounds in movies because it always caused that strange tickling feeling in the back of my head.

When someone is drawing a picture, it REALLY triggers it, especially if they are drawing it for me.

I used to get these in primary school when people used to play with my shoes.

Okay, science may never explain the shoe thing. But scroll through these lists, and the array of triggers is largely consistent: classical music, haircuts, movie trailers, Bob Ross, more Bob Ross, lots of Bob Ross, the painter best known for his popular instructional videos. Forget the bucolic landscapes; these Ross fans are fixated on his calming baritone and the rustle of his brush on the canvas.

Still skeptical? Craig Richard, a professor and researcher at the Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy in Winchester, Va., and founder of a blog called ASMR University, says that’s just fine.

“If you don’t experience it, and there’s no published research, I think it’s appropriate to be skeptical,” he says. “I don’t know if I would believe it if I didn’t experience it myself.”

There is no solid data about ASMR, no published research studies — not yet. The term “ASMR” is nonclinical, coined in 2010 by a woman named Jennifer Allen who started an ASMR Facebook group and later became part of a team — along with Richard — that collected and analyzed anecdotal information about the sensation. Richard also notes the work of Bryson Lochte, a Dartmouth College undergrad who has used neuroimaging technology to study ASMR for his senior thesis but has not published his results.

Despite its mystery, “a lot is known about the physiological states associated with ASMR — relaxation, euphoria, comfort,” Richard says. “It’s the same molecules involved when an infant is comforted by its mother. . . . It’s endorphins, it’s oxytocin, it’s serotonin.”

In a 2012 blog post, Steven Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, compared ASMR 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 wrote — and theorized that ASMR could even be a type of “pleasurable” seizure.

The uncharted territory isn’t what people experience, Richard says, but how (some people are triggered through their own thoughts and memories; others through external sights, sounds or touch) and why. To help find answers, Allen and Richard’s team launched its first rudimentary ASMR research survey last month. It received more than 4,000 responses within the first 10 days.

“The response is showing how passionate and interested in ASMR people are,” Richard says.

Words of comfort

Maria says that she hears from subscribers, including doctors and psychologists, who are excited by the ASMR research. But mostly, she gets thank-you notes — from people with anxiety or sleep disorders, from overwhelmed college students struggling through exam week, from military veterans who tell her that her videos offer a sense of calm that they can’t find elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, Maria says, she was contacted by a young woman whose grandmother was in a hospice. The elderly woman was no longer very responsive, but when the granddaughter played Maria’s videos, “it made her grandmother happy and calmed her down,” Maria says, recalling the woman’s message. “She said, ‘This is so great, because we don’t know how else to help her.’ ”

Maria was deeply moved by the thought of comforting someone through the final stages of life. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says.

But maybe it’s not so surprising. Consider Maria’s most-viewed video, every element in the shot meticulously chosen: the subtly patterned wallpaper behind her, the dim lighting, her muted sweater and — especially — her words.

“I would like to protect you, to comfort you,” she murmurs. “To help you relax and forget about your trouble, whatever it is.”

She smiles and leans close, tracing her fingers over the camera lens as if caressing a face.

“Don’t worry about anything,” she whispers. “Everything is going to be all right.”