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What Is ASMR?

A woman lies in bed with headphones on.

You’ve probably seen them all over YouTube—videos of people whispering or scratching items gently with their fingernails, or even opening boxes or brushing their hair. For some people, these videos induce a physical reaction, often called a tingle. That’s ASMR.

But is there any science behind ASMR? It turns out that there is—but since scientists have only just begun studying it, our understanding of it is constantly changing and improving.

The reason there has only been so much research conducted around ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is that it wasn’t identified until around 2009 or 2010—and even then, it took the scientific community some time to catch onto what had become a growing community of ASMR fans who had gathered on the internet to discuss the whole thing.

However, interest in ASMR has grown rapidly since then, both within and outside the scientific community—so, in case you’re curious, here’s what has been figured out about the phenomenon so far.

What Is ASMR?

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s a physical sensation some people experience in response to certain stimuli—often gentle auditory stimuli like hearing someone whisper. However, visual stimuli might trigger it as well. Usually, it is described as extremely pleasant or even euphoric.

Typically, the sensation starts on the scalp as a sort of tingling feeling before spreading down the neck, shoulders, and sometimes the entire body. Most people who experience it find it highly relaxing. Due to its scalp-centric beginnings, some people who experience ASMR have referred to it as a “head orgasm” or a “brain-gasm,” although it’s not sexual in nature.

Triggers for ASMR vary widely, but what they often share is their gentleness. Commonly reported triggers include watching other people paint, draw, cook, open a package, or touch or brush their own hair or someone else’s; listening to tapping or scratching sounds; and, of course, the perennial favorite: hearing someone whispering.

A whole genre of YouTube videos aimed at inducing ASMR has arisen from the growing understanding of its triggers; additionally, some extant pieces of media have been recast as ASMR triggers. For example, The painter Bob Ross has become something of an ASMR icon because his painting programs involve both watching someone paint and listening to someone speak in soft, calming tones.

The term ASMR, it was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010. While Allen isn’t a scientist, she has spent a lifetime experiencing the sensation she dubbed ASMR. After she stumbled upon a thread on the health-focused internet community SteadyHealth, she realized she had finally found a group with whom to discuss this thing they all had in common. But they still didn’t have a name for the thing—so Allen came up with one herself.

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Headphones are often encouraged when listening or watching ASMR.

According to a 2019 article about the rise of ASMR published in The New York Times, “autonomous” refers to the fact that the feeling comes “from within”—that is, that it’s self-governing; “sensory” was chosen because, obviously, the feeling has to do with the senses; “meridian” represents “peak but also orgasm and the energy pathways of traditional Chinese medicine”; and “response” has to do with the fact that external stimuli trigger it—that is, it’s “not a constant state,” but something that happens as a reaction to something else.

How Does ASMR Work?

A woman speaks into a standing microphone.

Because ASMR has only recently been identified, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how it actually works. The research that has been conducted on it, though, reveals that the brains of people who experience ASMR might be wired differently than the brains of those who don’t.

Researchers working out of the University of Winnipeg conducted a study that was published in the journal Social Neuroscience in 2017 that looked at the possible neural underpinnings of ASMR. It was the first study to do so and led to some interesting results.

The researchers scanned two groups’ resting brain states–one group which experienced ASMR and one that didn’t. The brains’ “default mode network,” which is usually indicated by specific areas of the brain firing, or “lighting up” at the same time, looks different in people who experience ASMR.

As Libby Copeland wrote in a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine piece, the researchers saw that “the areas that typically work together weren’t firing together as much.” Instead, “Other areas of the brain were getting more involved than usual—areas related to a visual network, for instance.” This implies that people who experience ASMR might not have the distinct brain networks we’ve come to think of as the norm, but rather, blended ones.

Additionally, a 2018 study published in the journal Bioimpacts found that when people who experience ASMR watch videos that induce the feeling, their brain’s medial prefrontal cortex activates. That’s the part of the brain found in primates to connect with social awareness and behaviors such as grooming. This might explain why so many of the triggers for ASMR tend to be intimate in nature.

It’s possible that ASMR may be related to—or, at least, slightly overlap with—synesthesia.

“In synesthesia, there have been some studies that show there’s slightly atypical wiring in the brain that leads to slightly different sensory associations,” said Stephen Smith to Smithsonian Magazine in 2017. “And I think that may be the same thing we have here.”

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Many use ASMR to sleep, and sleep headphones make it easier to dooze off while listening.

Now, who exactly experiences ASMR, and who doesn’t? Again, there is a lot we still don’t know, but there might be a connection between certain personality traits and ASMR. According to one study published in the journal PeerJ in 2018, those who experience ASMR also score more highly on mindfulness scales.

Additionally, a study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology in 2017 found that people who report experiencing ASMR scored much higher on the traits of Openness to Experience and Neuroticism and much lower on the traits of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness on the Big Five personality inventory. This study suggests that experience of ASMR may in fact be associated with particular personality traits, although more research is needed to further bolster these results.

What Are the Benefits of ASMR?

Just as there’s still much we don’t know about the mechanism by which ASMR works, there’s also much we don’t know about its short-term and long-term effects. However, a growing body of research suggests that it can be enormously beneficial for those who experience it.

Many of the benefits are psychological, including stress reduction and a boost in overall effect. For example, according to one study published in the journal PLOS One in 2018, people who experience ASMR while watching videos reported feeling “increased levels of excitement and calmness and decreased levels of stress and sadness”. The participants who experienced ASMR and the participants who did not experience it demonstrated no significant differences in response when they watched control videos.

The 2018 PLOS One study also found some physiological effects of ASMR: Watching the videos were “associated with increased excitement and skin conductance levels,” which are generally indicators of physiological arousal. However, this arousal is not necessarily sexual in nature. The researchers suggest that the contrast between the emotional calmness and the heightened physiological responses might be “indicative of the emotional complexity of ASMR”—that is, ASMR can induce seemingly opposite feelings and sensations at the same time, the same way, say, nostalgia or aesthetic chills can.

Additionally, there’s evidence to suggest that ASMR can help people sleep better. According to a 2018 study that connected ASMR with high mindfulness scores, a whopping 82 percent of people who experience ASMR use it to help them sleep.

Given that adults with lower stress levels have long been known to sleep better and longer than those with higher ones—and that ASMR is associated with reduced stress levels—this is perhaps unsurprising. It’s possible watching or listening to ASMR-inducing stimuli may help those who experience the sensation sleep better.

The question of whether ASMR is real or not has been floating through both the scientific community and the population at large for as long as we’ve had a term to identify it. But so far, the research suggests that yes, ASMR is real. There’s still much to learn about it, so our understanding of it will undoubtedly continue to evolve as more research is conducted.

In the meantime, why not give a few ASMR videos a shot? You never know—you might walk out of the experience feeling better than ever!

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