Jelly slime, bubble slime, magnetic slime,… all ‘oddly satisfying’ and increasingly popular video content. Zoé Vanhersecke explores the psychology behind this phenomena and questions: is watching better than doing or are we just WEIRD?
In 2016 the Internet saw a phenomenal rise of “slime videos” [Figure 1, left]. While the popularity of slime has somewhat decreased, its genre, the “oddly satisfying” is still very current now featuring scraping soap or crushing objects with a hydraulic press.
How did this phenomenon arise? A quick backstory
In the 2010’s era of DIY (Do-It-Yourself), tutorials on how to make slime aired. Quickly, creators noticed that the audience wasn’t necessarily following along or making the slime themselves but were simply watching because it was “satisfying”. A new market opened up.
How did we switch from doing to watching?
We live in a cooperative society today, but this hasn’t always been the case. Without a formal education system or teachers carefully explaining concepts, humans have evolved to learn by watching others. To do so, when you see someone doing something, for instance crunching slime, your brain fires the same neurones in your cortical motor system you would need to crunch the slime yourself (Fadiga and colleagues, 1995; Maeda and colleagues, 2002; Patuzzo and colleagues, 2003). Thankfully, evolution didn’t want to make life too awkward: an inhibitory system in your spinal cord prevents you from actually mimicking the action! This whole is called a “mirror-neuron system”. Basically, you are crunching slime in your mind when you see someone do so! And so, if crunching slime in real-life is satisfying, seeing someone crunch slime is just as satisfying.
Why is watching EVEN BETTER than doing?
Who likes washing up? (Nearly) nobody. Ever heard someone saying that washing up just ‘ruins’ the cooking for them? Well, it’s not just drama. Your brain remembers experiences according to the ‘peak-end rule’ meaning it remembers the high and the end. Slime is messy. If you were to make it yourself, while the high stays the same, it ends with cleaning; when you watch a video, it ends with you closing an app.
Slime videos are just like a good rom-com. It is predictable, and it ends perfectly. Real-life is messy and stressful. Your brain notices uncertainty; as all things unknown are a potential threat. The higher the uncertainty, the more it wants you to take action, any action: fight or flee to survive.
To lead you to take action, it gradually increases dopamine until the situation is resolved. In essence, you’re more and more aroused, excited. Slime is the opposite. It is so certain, that your heart rate slows down. Relieving stress, it leads you to feeling relaxed, and when the expected ending comes, it feels… ‘just right’.
If somehow you’re the only person on this earth that still hasn’t watched ‘oddly satisfying videos’, I won’t suggest you look it up now; because I might never get your attention back.
Why would you be so captivated?
Slime and its derivatives are reminiscent of “the magic of childhood”. These videos can act as retrieval cues for your play-doh times, and with that, by association, your ‘free-of-worries play-doh spirit’. This association can happen consciously, or unconsciously as a consequence of priming.
This explains why we would like slime, but it doesn’t explain the ‘tingling feeling on the scalp moving down the neck and spine’ reported by viewers.
This tingling sensation is an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)
Specific thoughts visual or audio stimuli can trigger these types of responses. This ‘pleasurable headache’ comes with a feeling of deep relaxation. These feelings are all self-reported. However, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans have shown that experiencing ‘ASMR’ is correlated with the activation of two brain regions: one associated with reward and the other with emotional arousal. These regions are similar to the ones activated during ‘musical frisson’ or ‘aesthetic chills’.
Does that mean watching a teenager massaging slime provokes the same sensation as listening to an opera or seeing a century-old masterpiece in a museum?
Not quite. An emotional stimulus provokes both ASMR and chills/frisson, and while these responses seem similar, physiologically they aren’t. Chills/frisson are exciting and put you in an aroused state, heightening your heart rate. On the other hand, ASMR lowers your heart rate, putting you in an unaroused, calm and relaxed state.
Are we all obsessed with slime or are we being WEIRD?
Recent research has shown that there are cross-cultural differences in visual perception, standards of fairness, spatial cognition or even reasoning. We often make the mistake of assuming that what is true for a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) population is automatically universal. While priming and memory-retrieval are part of human biology, the colourful and playful cues these videos provide are only a primer for a WEIRD childhood.
What would glitter remind you of if you grew up in the Amazonian jungle? Not much.
This obsession with ‘satisfying’ videos is fairly new (2007); the term ASMR itself dates from 2010! So, while ASMR and the ‘oddly satisfying’ exploits inherent human biology, its prevalence today is a product of our culture.
The abundance of material resources also impacts our psychology
Triggers eliciting ASMR have different effects on individuals, and some individuals are more subject to experiencing ASMR overall. Experiencing ASMR is correlated with certain personality traits. Notably, people subject to ASMR score very high on ‘Openness to experience’. Now, material security, allows a culture to be ‘loose’, to care less about people deviating from norms. This, in turn, allows people to be interested in new experiences. They are even rewarded, as they become creative innovators (Muthukrishna and Henrich, 2016). One, indeed, cannot be ‘open to experiences’ if living in a dangerous environment (Gurven and colleagues, 2013).
The internet agrees that our obsession with slime is weird, but it is also WEIRD. The ‘oddly satisfying’ is thus even weirder than we thought!
There is another consideration though. What we have discussed only explains the rising trend in the ‘oddly satisfying’, but how can we explain sudden decreases in interest such as this (figure 3, right)? Trends are two-fold with both salience and norms. That is a story for another day.
- This blog post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science programme in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE. It has been published with the permission of the author. Visit the PBS website for more information on studying in the department: https://www.lse.ac.uk/PBS/Study.
- The views expressed in this post are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or LSE.
- Feature image (banner and homepage) via Canva.
- Figure 1 & 3: Google trends interest over time data for ‘slime’ YouTube searches from 2008 to 2021. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means that there was not enough data for this term.
- Figure 2: Diagram showing the cortical motor system and the spinal cord.
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