On the bus home from work one day I went rabbit hole deep on this phenomenon on Instagram. When it had enraptured me all the way to my destination, I was … alarmed. What was wrong with me? So I googled it. And what I found was that 1) this is a very common tendency; 2) the “oddly fascinating” fascination was thoroughly covered by the media way back in 2018. So I’m behind the times.
The phrase “oddly satisfying” has been investigated at length, and even The New York Times is on it:
“The videos seemed to scratch an itch I didn’t know I had. If I watched long enough, I felt lightly hypnotized, as if one of those disembodied hands had reached in and massaged my brain.”
Some have coined that “mental massage” as ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response.” Like, watching certain videos can literally send pleasure shivers down your spine.
So why is this? When you watch a video that has this effect, you’re momentarily fixed on its sensory stimulation, which represents a highly relatable activity that mirror neurons can then translate. In other words, if manipulating play-doh is something you find soothing, calming, fun, and enjoyable, then watching a video of it will also translate those qualities in your body, just maybe at a lower intensity—like a Xerox copy. Our brain is basically ripping off of someone else’s “flow state” experience. And we know that there are two things that happen when your brain is in such a state:
the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex lights up a lot less—that’s the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control and also serves as our “inner critic”
Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin flood our system. These are all the pleasure-inducing chemicals.