How Does ASMR Work? The Science Behind Those Brain-Tingling Sounds
The videos continue to trend on YouTube, but only certain people seem to benefit from them.
What’s with all the lip-smacking, slime-poking, plastic-crinkling content on YouTube lately? To some people, it’s a whole lot of woo-woo weirdness. But to those who experience ASMR, it’s a convenient form of self-care. They tune in to bliss out.
It can be hard to wrap your mind around ASMR if you haven’t personally experienced the head buzz that certain sights and sounds can elicit. People watch ASMR videos for the deeply calming, brain-tingling sensation that it produces. They say it helps them relax and fall asleep. (Others find ASMR really irritating. More on that later.)
A few big brands have even mimicked ASMR techniques in ads targeting young adults. Actress Zoë Kravitz famously whispered and tapped her way through a 2019 Super Bowl ad for Michelob Ultra. Ikea borrowed the technique for a 25-minute digital spot on dorm room products.
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Researchers are trying to pin down the origin and potential health benefits of ASMR. At this point, the science woefully lags behind its cultural appeal. There’s no proof that ASMR is an antidote for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or insomnia, as some users claim. That’s the hope, of course. But if you just want to unwind and de-stress, experts see little harm in giving it a whirl and watching a few videos.
ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a term coined in 2010. People describe a deeply relaxing sensation with tingling in the scalp as a result of a certain stimulus—often a gentle sound. Some say the feeling cascades down their spine to their limbs.
You might have heard it called a “brain orgasm,” even though the static-like feeling isn’t necessarily sexual.
Real-life experiences, like having your hair shampooed and styled, can set off brain tingles. But even just watching videos with certain sounds and visuals trigger an ASMR response in some people.
What is ASMR video?
The glut of ASMR content on social media has spurred growing interest in the phenomenon. Reddit has an ASMR community of more than 183,000 members who share videos and experiences. ASMR videos are meant to appeal to a wide range of audiovisual senses, because what lulls one person’s brain into a blissful state may be a dud for someone else.
Hushed whispers are a top trigger. Other people respond to crisp sounds, gentle movements, or personal attention via role-playing scenarios, such as a video artist pretending to give you a head massage.
Craig Richard, PhD, professor in the department of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, is the author of the book Brain Tingles, an ASMR user guide. He recalls experiencing ASMR as a kid coming home after school to watch Bob Ross, host of public television’s The Joy of Painting.
“He would turn my brain to fuzz—this enjoyable, relaxing fuzziness,” Richard tells Health. Turns out the late painter’s soothing instructions and wispy brush strokes have wide appeal in the ASMR community.
Nitin Ahuja, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote about a specific genre of ASMR videos in which video artists “play doctor.” These clinical role-playing videos consist of everything from virtual vision testing and Reiki healing to pretend gynecologic exams.
Dr. Ahuja tells Health that this content raises an interesting question: Can people derive therapeutic benefit from the mere act of caregiving?
Is ASMR real?
It’s unclear how many people experience ASMR, since no one has conducted a nationally representative survey. Nor have researchers defined a “phenotype,” or set of traits defining people who get the vibe. With only 10 peer-reviewed studies published to date, ASMR research “is clearly in its embryonic stage,” says Richard, who is also the founder of ASMRUniversity.com, an ASMR repository.
The first rigorous study to assess the impact of ASMR on mood and physiology was published in 2018. Researchers found that watching ASMR videos aroused pleasant feelings, but only in people who self-identify as having ASMR and only watching ASMR videos (not non-ASMR videos). What’s more, the ASMR group showed significant reductions in heart rate (of more than three beats per minute) versus a control group that did not experience the sensation.
Separately, Richard and his colleagues conducted the first brain-scan study of people watching ASMR videos. The small study, involving just 10 participants, allowed researchers to compare images of people’s tingling and non-tingling moments.
It turns out that the areas of the brain that light up when someone experiences tingles are very similar to the areas activated when someone is being groomed, cared for, or affectionately interacting with their partner, he explains.
What causes ASMR?
So what accounts the ASMR experience, and why do only some people experience it? Is it the release of mood-enhancing brain chemicals? Or could it be something more primitive, like a hardwired reaction to pleasurable sensations?
Dr. Ahuja says the current body of research “doesn’t really get at anything mechanistic.” Still, there seems to be something to it, he tells Health, because people feel better when they watch these videos. “At worst,” he reasons, “it’s a placebo effect.”
If you haven’t yet experienced ASMR, that doesn't necessarily mean you never will. The best way to know, says Dr. Ahuja, is probably to give some videos a try and see how you feel.
ASMR and other sensory conditions
Some research suggests ASMR may overlap with synesthesia, an unusual condition that involves hearing colors or textures, for example, or seeing or tasting sounds. But don’t confuse ASMR with the goose bumps you get when you hear a piece of music that moves you. That’s called frisson, a French word for shiver.
“Brain tingles are subtle, sparkly, and you feel them a little bit more in your head,” Richard explains.
And if you are completely, unreasonably annoyed by these videos of people tapping, crinkling, or chewing, there’s a perfectly good explanation for that, too. You might have something called misophonia, an extreme reaction to certain sights and sounds—actually the exact opposite of ASMR.
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