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how ASMR got started|Colorful human brain wire and dots|Relaxed young woman enjoying rest on comfortable sofa|Man floating inside of a sensory deprivation isolation tank|Young woman makes herself relaxing head massage

Health & Wellness

How Did the Phenomenon of ASMR Get Started?

The phenomenon of ASMR is really taking off online, and ASMR videos on YouTube are racking up millions of views. There is an ASMR community on Reddit, and there are groups on most social platforms devoted to discussing the 'brain tingles' and the best ways to trigger them.

ASMR is nothing new. What is new is the ability for those who are able to have ASMR experiences to connect with others whose brains are wired in the same way. Before the phenomenon became widely discussed online, those who were able to experience Autonomous Sensory Meridan Response were left struggling to explain it to others, and perhaps wondering if they were 'strange' in some way.

Young woman makes herself relaxing head massage Not Everyone Can Experience ASMR

It turns out that ASMR is quite common, but not ubiquitous. While a lot of people can experience ASMR, there are many others who either cannot experience it or who are yet to find their triggers. The first ASMR group was founded on Facebook in 2010, and the founder, Jennifer Allen, is the person who can be credited with coining the term. She chose the term ASMR because "Autonomous" references the way that triggers differ from person to person, "Meridian" is another word for the tingling sensation, whereas "sensory" and "response" describe the way that the feeling occurs following a trigger such as a sound. 1

Allen is not a scientist, but she has founded ASMR University, which is devoted to the study of ASMR, and there are several scientists currently studying the phenomenon. As word about those 'head tingles' has gotten out, the phenomenon has grown from a few people who already knew that they had the capacity for the experience talking about it among like-minded people, to something that people are seeking out to "see if they can get it". There are even big brands, such as Ikea, getting in on the action with specific marketing videos. 2

Some people experience ASMR through audio triggers. Some people experience it through being in a certain situation (such as having their hair brushed, or getting an optical exam), and some people can bring the feeling on at will. Even among those who experience specific triggers, such as "sound", the sounds could be different - tapping, blowing, or whispering, for example. Some people may think that ASMR doesn't work for them, but discover later that they just hadn't experienced the right triggers. However, there are some people who are not able to experience ASMR at all.

Colorful human brain wire and dots Brain Wiring Matters

One study from 2017, with an admittedly small sample size of 22 people, examined two groups of participants. One group had 11 ASMR-capable people, while a second control group had 11 people who were not able to experience ASMR. The researchers found that the people who were able to experience ASMR had reduced connectivity between the frontal lobes and the sensory regions of the brain, but more connectivity in the cortical regions and resting state networks. The frontal lobes are the areas where complex thought occurs, the cortical regions are the parts that govern working memory, and the resting state networks are the parts of the brain that are active by default, even if you're not trying to do something specific. The researchers believe that this different, blended neural networking is what causes the sensations of ASMR. 3

There is another condition, known as misophonia, which means that some people experience extreme feelings of anger and aversion. 4 Researchers believe that ASMR and misophonia are a part of the same spectrum, and anecdotally this appears to be true. Around half of those who report having misophonia are also able to experience ASMR.

ASMR Becomes Mainstream

Since ASMR exploded in popularity online, it has attracted attention from marketers, and now food and drink companies are starting to pay attention to it when they make their advertisements. If you look at adverts from several years ago, you will notice that they usually focused on music and dialog, and things like the noise of a packet opening, or someone eating, would be edited out. That is starting to change.

ASMR is something that gives comfort to those who can experience it, so it makes sense that things such as crinkling a crisp packet or chomping on some fried chicken, would be left in a video if it is going to trigger positive responses. The same goes for movie makers. In scenes that are designed to be intimate (in the sense of 'a visit to the hairdresser', rather than adult content), then they can be structured to trigger ASMR too, making them memorable and re-watchable for viewers.

ASMR triggers can be surprising things. Bob Ross, the host of the classic painting show, is a popular 'trigger'. There are more than 1.5 million posts to the 'OddlySatisfying' hashtag on Instagram and there are videos of people playing with slime on YouTube that have millions of views.

Man floating inside of a sensory deprivation isolation tank The Evolution of ASMR

ASMR alone has had a cult following since 2010, but as the phenomenon grew in popularity people have started to look for new ways to experience it. One thing that started getting discussed in 2012 and that is still slowly gaining traction is the idea of doing ASMR in an isolation tank.

Isolation tanks are dark, quiet, and filled with saltwater that is heated to the same temperature as the human body. In theory, this means that you are deprived of all sensory input, so you can meditate more easily without distraction. Some people report out of body experiences, or visual hallucinations in such tanks, and some people experience ASMR if they experience any incidental contact (for example, if a part of their body brushes against the side of the tank). This has given rise to a number of products such as noise-isolating earbuds, which are often marketed at people who enjoy ASMR.

Relaxed young woman enjoying rest on comfortable sofa Brain Tingles Can Be Therapeutic

The therapeutic nature of ASMR is one reason why so many researchers are interested in it now. It is unlikely that ASMR can cure depression or serious anxiety in the long term, but it is clear that it has a short-term impact on the brain and that there is some overlap in terms of how ASMR, meditation and hypnosis work. This means that studying ASMR could help us to learn a lot about the subconscious, and could help us to understand a lot more about thought processes, mood, and wellbeing. If you're lucky enough to be receptive to ASMR triggers, then it is well worth making use of them if you are anxious, struggling to sleep, or just need to clear your head. They are a natural, drug-free way of relaxing, and some people can even learn how to trigger the sensations for themselves, giving them access to an instant pick me up in a similar fashion to mindfulness techniques. When looking at phenomena such as ASMR, it is truly amazing to see what the human brain can do.

Final Thoughts

Be on the lookout for more information into this sensation and how to experience it as ASMR continues to gain an online presence and researchers conduct further studies. While not everyone may be able to experience ASMR, those who have experienced it know exactly what this sensation is all about.

Photo credits: DavidKasza/, fizkes/, A.andI.Kruk/, Vlue/, staras/

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