What's The Deal With ASMR?

By Katelyn Piziali

Imagine someone has their hands running through your hair, their fingertips tracing patterns into your scalp. Your mind wanders, slowly relaxing as the hairs on your arms rise into goosebumps. Suddenly, a shiver jolts down your spine and a soothing, tingling sensation spreads across your limbs.

Now, imagine feeling all of this without actually being touched. Instead, a video with crisp, calming sounds elicits this entrancing response. If this sounds familiar to you, we’ve got a name for it: ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s a physiological reaction with its own YouTube following dedicated to triggering the euphoric experience.

WHAT IS ASMR?

ASMR, a term coined online in 2010, is described as a static-like tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. These tingles tend to spread in waves across the body, bringing with them a pleasurable sense of relaxation, according to Rob Gallagher, a researcher at King’s College London. ASMR is triggered by specific sounds or visual stimuli and can occur in real-life interpersonal encounters, or from digital media created for people who experience ASMR.

WHERE DID ASMR COME FROM?

ASMR first made its way online in 2010 when Jennifer Allen named the elusive experience and created a Facebook group to learn more about others’ ASMR stories. Since then, it has grown in popularity, garnering a YouTube community of “ASMRtists” who create videos centering around specific triggers or role play scenarios that elicit ASMR in their viewers.

One ASMR YouTube channel called Gentle Whispering ASMR has gained over 424 million views and 1.1 million subscribers since joining the community in 2011. Gentle Whispering “ASMRtist” Maria has made a multitude of videos ranging from role plays of a librarian typing away and a dermatologist skin exam to videos targeting specific audio triggers. Some of these may include tapping, clicking, brushing, crinkling or massaging.

BENEFITS & PURPOSES OF ASMR

Many people use ASMR videos as a way to cope with clinical conditions like insomnia, anxiety, depression, and/or panic attacks.

Cal Poly psychology professor Dr. Laura Cacciamani teaches sensation and perception theory and sees the possibility of ASMR being a psychological benefit to people, once further research has been done.

“If it is relieving insomnia or helping people study or calm down, then why not use it?” Cacciamani said. “It seems like something that could be incorporated into some kind of therapies, if it’s something that is actually helping people.”

HOW PEOPLE FOUND ASMR

The vast online network of YouTube is how many people discover ASMR for the first time.

Brendan Norton stumbled upon ASMR in 2013 when searching for a way to cope with stress-induced insomnia.

“My sophomore year of high school was pretty stressful and I had trouble sleeping unless I had music or some sort of ambient noise playing to help me fall asleep,” Norton said. “I was searching for relaxing videos on YouTube and I noticed a bunch of videos with the tag ASMR. That's how I found out that ASMR was a thing.”

In addition to YouTube, a few media outlets have begun publishing articles about the online ASMR world.

Emily Packer found out about ASMR when reading a Cosmopolitan magazine article.

“It was talking about some of the bigger ASMR people on YouTube and the growing following of the community and how people used it to fall asleep,” Packer said. “I've always had a hard time sleeping and tried herbal and vitamin supplements and essential oils. This sounded like such a weird, unordinary and new thing so I figured, why not try it?”

For others, the discovery of ASMR occurs at an early age.

Dan Canella recalls Googling phrases related to ASMR as young as 11 or 12 years old.

“I knew as I was reading the descriptions of ASMR that I had experienced it many times before,” Canella said. “It seemed strange to me that it was not just a normal feeling people occasionally experienced, but some sort of relaxation response.”

MISOPHONIA - THE OTHER END OF THE ASMR SPECTRUM  

Since ASMR is a subjective experience, triggers are different for everyone. What might induce a soothing ASMR experience for one person could induce misophonia—a disorder causing negative fight-or-flight responses in reaction to sound—in another. If you’ve ever cringed at the sound of nails on a chalkboard, you’ve had a taste of misophonia.

Canella experiences both misophonia and ASMR, so he avoids videos that involve sounds such as chewing, lip-smacking, or swallowing.

“Most ASMR videos don’t trigger the misophonia, but some do, usually involving whispering or some other high-fidelity mouth noises,” Canella said. “My triggers for ASMR are primarily massage and haircut videos, both professional and amateur.”

POPULAR ASMR TRIGGERS

In ASMR videos, common triggers for people include: listening to a whispering voice, listening to the sounds of someone performing a mundane task like brushing hair or turning the pages of a book, or receiving undivided individual attention like a physical exam.

For Norton, videos involving role play are the most effective in producing an ASMR response.

“I find role play videos to be not only creative but the ones that trigger ASMR for me,” Norton said. “The actual triggers are probably human voice and speech, rustling paper, tapping on surfaces, and bubble wrap.”

Packer experiences ASMR the most when watching videos of everyday tasks and household chores.

“I’ve always found watching someone iron, put on makeup, brush hair, or do simple activities super slowly and with great focus to be really soothing,” Packer said.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ASMR

Because ASMR hasn’t been extensively scientifically researched or studied, there tend to be many misconceptions about its purpose, uses and content.

“I think ASMR is really misunderstood and people assume it's some creepy, softporn thing,” Packer said. “It doesn't help that some people describe it as ‘an orgasm for your brain.’ I think when done right, ASMR is a really good thing that more people should try.”

Norton sees ASMR content as a means of creative expression—not sexual by any means.

“There's been a lot of over-sexualizing of ASMR that I think is not the point of what many ASMR artists are trying to do,” Norton said. “Not many people know about it because it's a weird subject to talk about and share with other people. Some videos are essentially you watching one person crinkle paper for thirty minutes or listening to someone whispering unintelligible consonants into a microphone. It's hard to describe to people sometimes and you don't want to sound like a weirdo.”

Whether ASMR grows to have a cult following or remains in the niche webs of YouTube, it is increasingly apparent that it serves as a helpful relaxation tool for people to harness. Check out the videos below to see if you experience ASMR - happy relaxing!