ASMR has quite recently developed a cult following online. There are subreddits, YouTube channels, and Facebook groups devoted to the phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response. If you’re lucky enough to be able to experience ASMR, then you will completely understand why it’s so popular. If you haven’t felt it before, then it’s well worth exploring to see if it’s something that you’re receptive to.
What Is ASMR?
ASMR is the official term for “brain tingles” or the “head orgasm” that some people experience when they are exposed to certain sounds or visual stimuli. The term was coined by Jennifer Allen who wanted to have something better sounding than “brain orgasm” to explain ASMR and to open up the discussion about the phenomenon to other people.1
She started the first Facebook group on the subject and is now a part of ASMR University, an organization that is devoted to the furthering of scientific understanding about ASMR.
When Allen founded the Facebook group, it provided a platform to individuals who have always felt a little different about certain stimuli to discuss the phenomenon with others who feel the same way. It was full of people who finally had a chance to talk about those tingles and not get strange looks. The early members talked about and shared their triggers: tapping, scratching, blowing, whispers, and crinkles.
Members also made ASMR videos and shared them, and it didn’t take long for word to get out and for others who perhaps weren’t already “ASMR aware” to try them and find that they too experienced these sensations. From there, the phenomenon has become amazingly popular.
ASMR is now a huge video genre on YouTube. There are millions of videos and even some of the less popular ones have hundreds of thousands of views. Some of the more established, video makers have more than 10 million views per video. They make videos to help people fall asleep, relax, or just to provide the infamous “head tingles.”
There is a wide range of ASMR triggers including whispering, tapping, chewing/eating, blowing, crinkling, scratching, folding, role play, and some types of music.
Anatomy of a Good ASMR Video
A good ASMR video is one that features soft, relaxing sounds. Usually, the video will be recorded in a binaural format, with sound moving from ear to ear. There will either be no visual aspect to the video or the video will show the object that is making the sounds or a person that is pretending to move from one side of your head to the other. When it is done properly, the binaural element of ASMR videos can be incredibly convincing.
ASMR videos should be recorded in a soundproof environment, and if there is a subject to the video, the background should be neutral, and the video should not be too busy. The idea is to allow the viewer to focus on the sound. The sound should be recorded with a high-quality microphone to ensure that it is as crisp as possible.
What Happens in Your Brain During an ASMR Experience?
The most obvious sign of ASMR is the head tingle and the feeling of pleasure that spreads through the rest of the body. Some people also note that they experience an intense feeling of relaxation to the point that they fall asleep.
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The impact of ASMR is interesting enough and has enough of a cult following that researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield decided to investigate exactly what happens to individuals who are experiencing ASMR and what goes on in the body during the experience.2
They started the research by recruiting more than 1,000 participants to watch some videos. The participants viewed some control videos and some videos that were known to induce ASMR. They were asked to report how each video made them feel, both emotionally and in terms of the physical triggers of ASMR.
The researchers used the results to categorize the participants, and those who reported experiencing ASMR-like sensations frequently were asked about the sensations that they experienced and what triggered them.
The study found that those who had ASMR experiences typically reported feeling more excited and calm, as well as less sad and stressed when presented with ASMR-inducing videos. The ASMR-receptive people did not respond any differently to the control videos than the people who were not ASMR-receptive.
After completing this survey, the researchers recruited another group of 110 volunteers, some of whom were ASMR-experiencers and some of whom were not, and they measured the physiological responses of those participants to ASMR videos and control videos.
On average, people who experienced ASMR had heart rates that were 3.14 beats per minute lower than those of non-ASMR experiencers. The people who experienced ASMR also had greater skin conductance, which is evidence of an emotional response. The response to the ASMR experience was similar to the response that other researchers have seen from music, mindfulness, and other stress-reduction techniques.
So, it’s clear that ASMR really does have an impact on people’s physical and mental wellbeing, but what exactly causes that response? Well, there have been a few studies conducted that focus on how the brain responds to ASMR stimuli.
The first study of that type, by Smith, Fredborg, and Kornelsen of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines to determine whether there were differences in brain activity between people who were receptive to ASMR and people who were not. The fMRI measures blood flow in the brain, which gives an indirect idea of brain activity. It’s not a perfect measurement, but it is good enough for most purposes.
Differences in Brain Wiring
Another study by Davis and Barratt recruited 22 individuals, of whom 11 were ASMR-receptive and 11 were not. The MRIs were conducted in the absence of ASMR stimuli, in order to determine whether there is a difference in how people’s brains are wired and whether that accounts for the way that some people can experience ASMR while others cannot.
The data they collected showed that yes, there is a difference. ASMR-sensitive individuals have some areas that have more functional connectivity compared to non-ASMR sensitive people, and some areas that are less connected.3
It’s important to understand that connectivity does not mean activity, just that those parts of the brain tend to communicate with each other more or less. The researchers also wanted to emphasize that ASMR is not a disorder or a pathology. Rather, individuals who experience ASMR simply seem to have a reduced ability to inhibit what the researchers refer to as “sensory-emotional” experiences. They have the ability to relax better than those who cannot experience ASMR.4
More recently, another group of researchers tried to build on the work of Davis and Barratt and understand what is going on in the brains of people who are experience ASMR. A team of four researchers—Sean Guillory, William Kelley, Craig Richard, and Bryson Lochte—used fMRI to study the brains of individuals while they were experiencing ASMR.
To conduct the study, the team recruited participants who had self-identified as ASMR-sensitive in the typical way (those who reported ASMR without a tingling sensation or who were triggered by unusual content were excluded from the study). After vetting to ensure that only “typical ASMR” individuals were recruited, the study sample size was reduced to 13, of which 10 successfully completed the procedures.
The participants were presented with five full-length ASMR videos and were asked to select five, seven-minute segments which they felt successfully triggered their ASMR. They watched those videos while in the fMRI.
The researchers discovered that ASMR can be triggered even in a comparatively stressful environment such as an fMRI scanner. Additionally, it was discovered that during ASMR, the brain regions that are associated with self-awareness and social cognition are triggered quite actively. Other parts of the brain, including the parts associated with empathy and frisson, are also triggered. During ASMR experiences, people show more brain activity and more communication across those parts of the brain.5
Why Does ASMR Feel So Good?
So, researchers have shown that ASMR can trigger activity in areas of the brain that are normally idle. It is thought to involve the release of feel-good endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin. Those hormones can help induce feelings of comfort, sleepiness, and relaxation—exactly what people who experience ASMR report feeling.
People who are able to experience ASMR often score higher on “openness to experience” in the Big Five Inventory personality test and lower on “conscientiousness.” In other tests, such as the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, they tend to score greater on “empathic concern” and “fantasizing.”6 It’s unclear whether this is a result of differences in brain structure or whether they are more receptive to certain endorphins, but there is a clear difference in personality and in their response to stress.
Serotonin and oxytocin play an important role in bonding and social interactions. Oxytocin, in particular, is thought to decrease anxiety-like responses and also decrease anxiety-related behaviors.7 People who are able to experience ASMR may be enjoying a number of neuroprotective behaviors as a result. Oxytocin is good the body, and it makes individuals feel good, so it makes sense that people who experience ASMR are going to want to seek out triggers time and time again.
Why Do People Use ASMR?
According to early studies, around 98 percent of people who use ASMR content do so in an attempt to relax. Eighty-two percent of ASMR users will watch trigger videos to help themselves get to sleep, 80 percent use them because they have a positive effect on their mood, and 70 percent watch ASMR videos to help them cope with stress.
Other studies have found similar results, with relaxation being one of the recurring themes. There could be an additional, underlying phenomenon which respondents in self-reported studies are reluctant to discuss, though.
One popular ASMR trigger is methodical work and careful personal attention. People who are socially isolated and that do not get that kind of personal attention in their day-to-day lives may find role play videos quite therapeutic. Indeed, many ASMR videos focus on activities like a trip to the hairdresser or a clinical exam from a careful, caring physician.8 This could explain why ASMR is popular in Japan, where there is a growing number of hikikomori, young men who may work or study, but are otherwise are stuck in their homes, with little or no social interaction.9
There is a similar phenomenon in Korea, where many people are raised in a culture where eating alone is frowned upon and then have to face the reality that because of the pressures of their lives, they do not have anyone to eat with. To soothe the loneliness, they go online to eat with streamers. These streamers, usually young women, host “mukbang” shows where they will eat a large meal while interacting with their audience.10
Though many individuals around the world are not facing quite the same social pressures, it’s definitely possible that individuals still crave more social interaction than they typically receive. People who are holding down a job while studying, those who are chronically ill and unable to leave the house, and those who are going through hard times in their relationships may feel that online ASMR material offers them a safe and productive release.
Even those who are in happy relationships but who are struggling with stress and anxiety might benefit from ASMR, as might those who are wrestling with insomnia. ASMR is a non-drug based solution to a near-ubiquitous problem.
Many people who can experience ASMR describe it as “self-induced chills of joy.” However, it can be hard to understand exactly what it feels like or why it is so good if you haven’t experienced the sensation yourself.
There is a head massager known as the “orgasmatron” which can produce a similar, although slightly different, head-tingling effect. The device has several long prongs that massage different parts of your scalp. Using it for a few seconds creates those tingles and chills. If you can experience ASMR but your friends can’t, then giving them a head massage is perhaps the only way that you can “share the light.” If you can’t experience ASMR but are genuinely curious, then buying a head massager could help you understand what the fuss is about.
Unfortunately, head massages tend to become less blissful over time, especially if you do them frequently because the nerve endings on the scalp become accustomed to being activated. ASMR is harder to become desensitized to because you can change the content you watch if you become bored of one specific trigger.
Availability of ASMR Content
One of the best parts about ASMR is that ASMR-related content is so freely available online. Additionally, many people are lucky in that they experience ASMR from media that was not specifically created to induce the sensation.
For example, Bob Ross, who is best known for “The Joy of Painting,” is a popular ASMR trigger. People enjoy watching him work and also enjoy hearing his calming voice and the deliberate “tap tap tap” of the paintbrush as he paints trees and other scenery.
Bob Ross is the most well-known example of what the ASMR community refers to as “unintentional ASMR,” but there are many other sources. Indeed, there are some popular and classic movies that produce ASMR experiences. Even The Office and True Detective have ASMR scenes in them.
Unintentional ASMR usually relates to deliberate and methodical work, whispered conversations, or people eating. Any scene that is slow-paced, quiet, and that focuses on one task could be a trigger for someone.
Being able to access ASMR content freely, on demand, and to enjoy it easily is a boon for many people. It makes ASMR far more accessible than some other relaxation methods. Yes, you can watch yoga videos online, but if you are not already fairly confident and flexible, then an online video is not a good substitute for working with a qualified instructor. The same can be said for meditation. Some people are naturally good at meditating, while others find that guided meditation is much easier for them, and that it is worth taking classes.
ASMR is easier and more convenient than many of these other relaxation methods. It’s simple to find a video that you like, put in a pair of stereo headphones, and sit back and relax. If you want to fall asleep using ASMR, then it is as simple as choosing a long video or audio file and allowing yourself to doze off to it.
Making Your Own ASMR Content
When people see how popular ASMR has become, many wonder whether it’s possible for them to make their own content. On the surface, it seems like a nice opportunity to make thousands of dollars per month from simple videos. Monetizing ASMR is tricky, though. To start, you’ll need a good microphone and a good environment to record in.11 It also helps if you experience ASMR yourself so that you know whether the sounds you are recording will work for at least a portion of the population. There is a fine line between sounds that irritate and sounds that cause the tingles, and those who cannot experience ASMR may not know what side of the line they are on with their content.
If you can experience ASMR, then you may want to consider what it is that you enjoy in day-to-day life, and to use that as a starting point. ASMR content includes everything from napkin folding to suit fitting, and it’s unlikely that every good idea has already been taken. The niche is still growing, so you may be able to find something that is new and that still fits into that category of “oddly satisfying.” Be sure to browse the rest of the content that is out there first. There’s a lot to enjoy in the world of ASMR.
ASMR on YouTube
YouTube is one of the major sources of ASMR content. There are numerous channels out there to choose from, and there are a number of mesmerizing videos. If you’re not convinced about ASMR yet and want to see what all the fuss is about, check out some of these videos:
Baking and ASMR: This is an artfully shot video that features soothing sounds and careful step-by-step instructions for making matcha cookies. It’s fascinating and pleasing to watch.
Cracking Open a Beer: The thought of sitting down with a cold beer is relaxing enough, but sometimes you just can’t do it because you have to work hard tomorrow. The next best thing is watching someone else cracking open a craft beer and taking you through the taste. In fact, for some people, enjoying someone else enjoying a beer is better than doing the drinking for themselves.
Bob Ross: Bob Ross is jokingly known as the “original ASMRist” and for good reason. His series, “The Joy of Painting,” is incredibly relaxing and nice to watch even if you don’t experience ASMR. For those who do experience it, and for whom ASMR is a trigger, watching his shows is a special experience.
ASMR Sleep Triggers: One of the most popular ASMR videos on YouTube at the moment is “20 Triggers to Help You Sleep.” This video, at the time of writing, has more than 29 million views, and it covers a lot of popular triggers including whispers, tapping, clicking, hair brushing, and many more. It’s a great way to get a feel for what the most popular ASRM triggers are without hunting from video to video.
Massage Role Play: It’s hard to do a good job with an ASMR role play video because you need to convince the viewer to suspend disbelief and have them thinking that you’re talking to them and interacting with them. Massage is a popular ASMR trigger, and some artists have attempted to make virtual massage videos, with varying degrees of success.
Makeup Role Play: Creating a great ASMR video of doing your makeup is a little easier than being convincing with a massage, especially if the video is recorded with binaural audio. Makeup videos cover triggers such as face touching, tapping, whispers, dabbing, and more.
Tapping: Some people don’t like role play videos because there is too much talking in them. They just want relaxing sounds. There are ASMR videos that contain one hour or more of just tapping with no talking. These videos are ideal for people who are looking to doze off to the sound of their favorite ASMR content. Simply load up a video, listen to the tapping, and drift off.
Whispering: This is one of the more controversial ASMR triggers in that the kind of whispering that works for some people doesn’t work for others. Some ASMR-experiencers love whispering videos that are either role-play or full of positive affirmations and nice words. Others find that listening to people whispering requires too much focus and that it kicks them out of the ASMR state. If you’re looking for ASMR content that will help you to relax, and you don’t want real words, then there are some ASMR videos where people whisper nonsense or the whispers are garbled so that it’s more like soothing white noise. Try both to see what works for you.
Bespoke Content for Your Personal Thrills
A lot of people who enjoy consuming ASMR content find that they get bored of watching the same videos over and over again. For some people, that is not an issue because there are so many different videos and so many different content creators out there. Those whose triggers are fairly generic such as tapping, crinkling, or whispering can get their fix from any one of hundreds, if not thousands, of videos.
Those who have more obscure ASMR triggers might struggle, however. Content such as “makeup applications” and “cranial exams” is out there, though, so whatever it is that you enjoy, you should be able to find something to suit you.
Because there is so much generic content out there that ASMRtists—creators of ASMR—are looking to other ways of making money because there is so much competition for views on free content that it is no longer as profitable for newer, up-and-coming creators. Bespoke content for people with particular tastes and obscure triggers is one area where ASMRtists can make a lot of money, and it’s something that is incredibly satisfying to watch. If you want to roleplay a trip to the opticians, then you could get a video made where you are referenced by name, asked questions that you want to be asked, and generally feel like you’re having a far more personal interaction with the “optician.” It makes the whole ASMR experience much more believable.
ASMR and Virtual Reality
The idea of consuming ASMR content in virtual reality (VR) hasn’t quite taken off yet. That’s partly because a lot of ASMR triggers are purely audio and the video is just there as a nice extra touch and partly because VR technology hasn’t quite achieved the level where it’s realistic enough to work for those who enjoy role-playing ASMR. The videos are realistic, yes, but headsets are bulky, heavy, and uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Perhaps the next step for ASMR will be virtual reality though.
Other Sources of ASMR Content
It’s natural for people who are into ASMR to want to discuss the “tingles” that they get and to discuss triggers too. If you’re new to ASMR and want some tips and advice, then you may want to check out these communities. They will help you to find the best ASMR content and to learn information like which headsets are best to buy, how best to remove distractions from your environment, how to make ASMR sensations stronger, and other tips. Here are some of the most popular places for sharing ASMR information:
The ASMR Subreddit: People often joke that there’s a subreddit for everything, and that could well be true. Reddit is a great place for sharing ASMR content and tips because the community can self-moderate. The system works on upvotes for good content and downvotes for bad content, so the best quality videos will bubble to the top. If you’re a fan of realistic content, then the “unintentional ASMR” shares will be particularly interesting for you.
The ASMR Lab: This is a great database of ASMR information. Some of the links provided on the site are out of date now, but there are still a lot of informative articles and interesting tips to help people to find good ASMR videos.
ASMR University: The ASMR University is devoted to studying the phenomenon of ASMR. They are delving into the art and science of the phenomenon and looking at how ASMR benefits individuals, why people enjoy it so much, what makes good ASMR content, and the neurological differences between people who can and cannot experience ASMR. If you are intrigued by ASMR, then it’s well worth reading the content that they produce and perhaps taking the ASMR survey to help further their research.
The Happy Mystery of ASMR
One of the best parts about ASMR is that while it produces an almost “drug-like” experience, making people feel happy, relaxed, and blissed out, it is something that people can repeat fairly regularly. While some people do find that as they consume ASMR content over and over their reactions decrease, almost as if they are building up a tolerance to the sensations, it does not take long for that tolerance to reset. For most people, if they stop consuming ASMR content for a week or two after becoming tolerant to the videos, then the sensations will usually return.
Scientists are still not totally clear on how ASMR works or why some people find that they become desensitized.12 That shouldn’t be surprising considering the first formal, peer-reviewed study into the phenomenon was only conducted in 2015, but since it is something that is non-invasive, appears to be safe, and can be enjoyed at no extra cost to the average person, there is little to question.13 ASMR is a happy mystery, and those who can experience it should consider it to be a blessing.
Not All Countries Approve
The massive growth of ASMR in the West should be easy to understand. The slightly seductive nature of some of the videos has raised eyebrows in other parts of the world, however. Many ASMR videos feature young, good-looking women with neatly manicured nails eating, whispering, or blowing into the microphone seductively, and gently’caressing the camera. In China, this content is considered to be vulgar, and certain types of ASMR are banned under the laws that are used to control pornography.14
Those who regularly consume ASMR content are quick to explain that it is not pornographic to them. They do not receive sexual gratification out of it, and they are not selecting the videos based on the looks of the people who make them. In a lot of videos, the performer takes a distant second to the sound. Some people don’t even look at the video while they listen. Indeed, some videos are simply soundtracks with a static image and still get a lot of views. Those who cannot experience ASMR find the concept alien enough that it is hard to get past the way that some performers present themselves, especially in videos that focus on food or role play.
The sensations of ASMR are hard to describe to people who cannot experience them. ASMR has many of the benefits of being in a meditative state, and the pleasant tingling sensations are an added bonus. If you cannot experience ASMR, don’t worry. That does not mean that you are abnormal in any way. It could be that you simply haven’t found the right triggers yet. There are videos full of “trigger tests” that can help you to identify your personal triggers, or it could be that your brain just isn’t wired that way.
Additionally, ASMR must come from an external source. You can’t give yourself ASMR by stroking your own hair, for example. You can use massagers to have a similar experience and you can experience ASMR from real-life touch and real-life personal attention though. Some people find that videos and sound files just aren’t realistic enough and that they need to experience the real thing.
ASMR releases oxytocin and serotonin, and as such, it is all about connection. Closeness, personal attention, and relaxation make individuals feel good, and for many people, that’s the main attraction of ASMR. If you are spending your days working in a cubicle, then driving home and spending the rest of the night alone, then you may feel like you’re missing out on individual interaction. Though ASMR is no substitute for getting out and meeting people in the real world, it can help to give you that closeness fix during a time when you’re tired, stressed, or feeling alone. For that alone, it deserves the immense popularity that it has gathered.
Photo credits: AlbinaGlisic/shutterstock.com, KasparsGrinvalds/shutterstock.com, SFIOCRACHO/shutterstock.com