ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is something that has quite a following online now. ASMR is the brain-tingling feeling that some people get when they hear certain sounds or are put in certain situations, such as having their hair washed at the salon, or having a dentist or optician take care of them. Yes, there are people out there who like the ‘exam’ part of going to the dentist!
ASMR is incredibly relaxing and is a pleasant feeling. Not everyone can experience it, and even for those who can experience it, the triggers can vary massively. Some people find that popping, tapping, or crinkling are good triggers. For others, whispering or blowing works well. Some people like scratching and some people find that role play works for them.
Sound versus Visual Triggers
The majority of ASMR triggers are auditory triggers. Researchers have found that ASMR triggers tend to be lower-pitched, complex sounds and that background music can hinder the experience. For people who can experience ASMR through videos, it was found that slower-paced and more detail-focused videos work well.1 There are a few theories as to why people experience ASMR, and one is that it is a set of triggers that are similar to the way that primates (and humans) soothe children and bond with each other. Touch and calming, soothing sounds release oxytocin and serotonin, and this helps to calm a child and to make the bond between two people stronger. ASMR helps people to relax, slowing their heart rate and helping to produce positive emotions.2
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Many people find that ASMR works much better for them in a dark room, or when they close their eyes. Some people can watch videos that are well-made, and ‘zone in’ on the video, but for others, the video is purely a distraction and it brings the person out of the experience and makes them feel slightly detached. The type of video matters a lot. Someone watching a video focused on tapping probably doesn’t need to watch the video to enjoy the experience. Some other ASMR content, such as whispering or ear blowing may benefit from being watched because it does add to the realism.
When it comes to role play experiences, the visual element becomes particularly important. There are a number of ASMR videos that focus on relaxing experiences where a person is getting one on one attention, such as:
Not all visual ASMR experiences are role play, however. There are some videos that are based on the idea of intent work and concentration, such as towel folding or even wax carving. Almost anything that is quiet, slow and methodical can be ASMR.
ASMR Has Many Benefits
While most people are drawn to ASMR because of the pleasurable feelings that are brought on during the experience, but there could well be more to ASMR than just ‘nice tingles’ Researchers at Sheffield University in the UK spent some time investigating whether the ASMR tingles could offer other health benefits, and the two-part study that they conducted produced some interesting results. People who experience ASMR tend to experience excitement and calmness even when watching videos without ASMR elements, but are less likely to experience sadness and stress. In addition, when people who can experience ASMR are exposed to content that creates that response, their heart rates slow down, and they show higher readings on a skin conductance test (which is a test for emotional response). This suggests that people who experience ASMR benefit in physiological, not just mental, ways from the phenomenon.3
Unfortunately, the caveat there is that ASMR content only produces positive responses in those who are receptive to it. Some people cannot experience ASMR and those people will not get any benefit from watching or listening to ASMR content. Some people experience misophonia – an extreme aversion to certain sounds. Those people will not take any joy from ASMR content that contains those sounds. Aversion to visual stimuli is uncommon, especially to the kind of slow and deliberate motions that are used in ASMR videos, but there are some people who struggle to watch certain content, such as people eating foods.
ASMR is not yet well studied, and while it is accepted that the phenomenon does have a physiologically-rooted set of benefits, exactly how visual and audio cues work is still unclear. One recent study looked at the possibility of a placebo-effect, and found that while naive participants may be susceptible to some suggestive instruction, those who have experienced ASMR in the past are not, and they are more likely to have a response that is consistent with what they have had based on previous media consumption.4 This is interesting for the purposes of using ASMR for psychological purposes.
ASMR and the Placebo Effect
In the study mentioned above, naive participants were told that non-ASMR media would produce the ASMR effect, and after consuming such media the participants reported that they experienced pleasant sensations and that their mood was boosted. For some of the participants, the effect from non-ASMR content was better than the effect from content that does have ASMR-triggering characteristics. The participants were reacting to what they were told they could expect from the content presented to them.
The group of people who were ASMR-receptive, and who regularly consumed such media at home, reported vastly different results. They experienced beneficial effects from ASMR content, but the effect of the other media was far lower. This study was self-reported, rather than using an fMRI to track the actual response of the brain, so it is unclear how much of the effect is ‘expectancy effect’ rather than being a difference in the characteristics of the media. Even if a large portion of the sensations are down to ‘expectancy’ rather than a specific trait of typical ASMR content, it still remains true that people are reporting benefits from consuming that media, and that alone is enough to make it worth trying.
Experiment to Find Your Triggers
If you have never had ASMR sensations before, then it is well worth experimenting. There are more than a dozen common triggers, and there are a lot of videos online for you to try. Many people create and share ASMR videos for free on YouTube, and there are groups on Facebook and subs on Reddit to allow people to discuss the phenomenon, so you can learn about it in your own time, for free. There is no evidence to suggest that experimenting with ASMR can be negative in any way, so it is worth testing a few videos to see if any of them produce the sensations for you. Start with binaural audio-based ASMR, since that appears, anecdotally, to be the most common trigger, and then try video content alter.
ASMR is not a substitute for medication, therapy or medical advice. If you are struggling with your mental health then it is important that you seek advice for that, and that you follow the directions given by your doctor, counselor or therapist. While ASMR can be a short-term pick-me-up, it is not a long-term solution to mental health conditions and it should not be treated as such. One fear that some researchers have is that the popularity of ASMR may lead to people self-medicating beyond what is sensible, instead of treating ASMR as being in the same league as mindfulness and meditation.
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