Despite having died two decades ago, there’s still so much about Bob Ross to latch on to. The hair, the positive attitude, those gentle landscapes, and, of course, that sweet, buttery voice. That voice was a big reason people who had no intention of ever picking up a paint brush watched Ross for years and years. And among those people, an even smaller set watched Ross for his unique ability to elicit a euphoric sensory experience.
It took the internet—and YouTube, especially—to unite and build the community of people who experience ASMR (short of “autonomous sensory meridian response”). In the last five years or so, the experience—often described as a tingling that starts in the scalp, trickles down the spine, and relaxes the whole body—has become well-known, with Bob Ross as an unexpected point of consensus. In an entirely subjective realm of experience, he is a commonly agreed upon father, godfather, king and classic example of what an ASMR trigger looks and sounds like. On the ASMR thread on Reddit, “Bob Ross” is listed as a common trigger. A video of Ross painting a mountain has a staggering 7 million views, with others surpassing two or three million view marks. Of course, not all of those are ASMR viewers, but a mounting online presence suggests they certainly deserve some of the credit.
Despite the number of people who identify with the ASMR experience, it wasn’t until this year that a scientific paper on the subject was published. In it, Emma L. Barratt and Nick J. Davis, psychologists at Swansea University in the U.K, polled 500 participants from Facebook and Reddit ASMR groups to identify common triggers like whispering and crisp sounds. They also identified some potential connections between ASMR and two other conditions: “flow states” and synesthesia. The science is still incredibly rudimentary and the term itself is non clinical—it was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen who started a Facebook group dedicated to the phenomenon. Some scientists consider ASMR pseudoscience, while others have linked it to the experience of musical frisson, that feeling when a piece of music elicits chills.
For the people who seek out ASMR videos, it’s not always about the same thing. Some watch for comfort, others for a sense of euphoria (commonly referred to as “brain orgasms”), and others to cure insomnia.
Viewers have broken down the factors that cause Bob Ross to hit all the right neurological buttons. He doesn’t whisper like many ASMR video producers, but rather speaks in a soft, quiet, and calming tone. He takes long pauses between words and sentences, and he exudes a kind of warmth. He speaks directly to the viewer, is task-oriented, and the sound of his brush or paint knife on the canvas also contribute to the perfect ASMR experience that is The Joy of Painting.
It's remarkable to think that, when he was on TV, Ross was bringing happiness, serenity, and relief to a community of people long before they had a name or a sense of group-awareness. With the Internet, he and his show get to experience a surprising second life with an incredible reach.
It’s too bad Ross didn’t live to learn about the ASMR phenomenon, but there’s joy and comfort in safely speculating he would have totally dug it.