science of us

Why Can’t I Stop Watching These Soap-Cutting Videos?

Photo: Jon Bradley/Getty Images

I spent last Sunday night the way I spend most Sunday nights. I walked my dog, brushed my teeth, washed my face, made coffee for the next morning, and then crawled into bed where, to prep for the week ahead, I ran through all of my anxieties about my career, my body, my relationships, bee extinction, not getting enough fiber in my diet, the unidentifiable leak in my freezer, death.

Not feeling quite bleak enough, I rolled over and opened Twitter on my phone. I was scrolling through the yawning chasm of posts thinking “Yes, that also makes me sad. That does, too. Now I’m angry as well. Ha-ha that’s funny. Nope, now I’m sad again,” when I came upon a post that stilled my squirmy, worried thoughts like one of those weighted blankets. It was a video of soap.

Specifically, it was a video of someone cutting soap. The top part of the pink bar had been sliced up into tiny squares which, when the anonymous hand slowly drags a knife beneath them, rise up in soft waves and then rain down on the table below with a satisfying clackclackclackclack. The hands keep cutting until all the small cubes have fallen, and then they keep cutting, slicing long, buckling segments off the bar and leaving behind perfectly smooth planes.

As I watched, I emitted a low, guttural growl, like a hungry bear coming upon a well-stocked and poorly guarded campsite. I replayed the video six times in a row, and then clicked the user’s handle (the unfortunately named @cuttingvids, which is remarkably similar to @Cuttingvideos) and watched every single one of their posts. Each video suffused me with the kind of warm, silky calm usually precipitated by scalp massages, or seeing one of my childhood nemeses finally get their comeuppance. They were the perfect balance of structure and chaos — the cuts were deliberate, but random, the slices so smooth, the clacks so soft. I got drowsy, and went to sleep.

Over the next couple of days, I watched the videos again and again, sometimes when I felt stressed, and sometimes when I just wanted a pleasant little break for my eyeballs. I sent them to my colleagues, who had similar reactions.

Katie Heaney said she liked the “small, orderly destruction,” and Kelly Conaboy pointed out that “it’s nice how there isn’t really a wrong slice.”

“I am obsessed with them and I don’t understand it,” said Lisa Ryan.

I don’t understand it either. It feels a little like ASMR, but also, I hate ASMR. ASMR videos have been a trend for a while; often they’re videos of people whispering, or brushing their hair. For me, they’re unsettling to listen to, and the ones with wet mouth sounds make me gag. But for some, these videos trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response — a pleasant tingling sensation that usually begins in the scalp and moves down the spine. Some have called it a “brain orgasm,” and that’s too bad, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

Recent studies, like this one from Dr. Giulia Poerio and her team at the University of Sheffield’s Psychology Department, even suggest that, for those who experience it, ASMR can have benefits for people’s mental and physical health. When researchers showed ASMR videos to a group of participants, some of whom experience ASMR and some of whom don’t, they found that, for those who do experience it, the videos lowered their heart rates in ways comparable to other stress reduction techniques like mindfulness meditation and listening to music.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that soap-cutting triggers ASMR.

“Soap-cutting videos share a lot of similarities with sound-only ASMR videos (i.e. videos where people aren’t speaking/whispering),” Dr. Poerio told the Cut. She explained that the clackclackclacks, and the cutting sounds, and seeing people do “something methodically/expertly with careful hand movements” can trigger people in the same way as other ASMR videos.

“However, even people who don’t experience ASMR may find these videos relaxing and oddly satisfying,” she noted. “But that doesn’t mean they have the characteristic brain-tingling trance like state that ASMR induces.”

Was what I felt when I watched these videos ASMR? According to Dr. Poerio, the most common set of triggers are soft-soft-speaking, whispering, close personal attention, and hair play/brushing, and less common triggers are eating sounds, lip-smacking, water sounds, and scratching sounds. Soap cutting did not make the list.

“The key thing about ASMR that makes it different from experiences such as the pleasant feeling when you get a head massage is that it is essentially a auditory/visual stimuli (e.g., whispering) which is creating tactile sensation (tingling) and associated feelings of calm and relaxation,” she said.

These videos did seem to trigger some ASMR reaction in me though. I felt the tingling in my brain and spine. I felt the calm and relaxation. I felt a general happy fizziness in my body, like taking a bath in warm seltzer water. How could you not? I mean, just look at how soothing this is:

I wanted to turn this tingling into action, but soap cutting, it turns out, is far more enjoyable to observe than to do. After work one day I picked up a bar of soap, laid out some paper towels on my bedroom floor, and started cutting. I started by slicing the top of the bar into tiny cubes like the first video I watched, and when I tried to drag my knife underneath them, it required too much hand strength to be relaxing. The clackclackclack of the falling cubes was underwhelming in person. I spent the next half hour mindlessly shaving bits off of the soap, and that was pleasant, although my hands got waxy. When I got bored, I carved the soap into a face, and then into a skull, both of which were extremely terrifying to look at, and not soothing at all. I had to watch some more soap-cutting videos to calm down.

Soap-cutting videos may not trigger ASMR for you. But sometimes, when you need to take a break from the huge, scary, existential chaos of the world, it’s nice to be able to luxuriate for just a moment in a beautiful, orderly, contained kind of chaos of anonymous, manicured hands slicing a fancy piece of soap into oblivion. How relaxing.

Why Can’t I Stop Watching These Soap-Cutting Videos?