ASMR is a new term for an age-old phenomenon. It stands for the autonomous sensory meridian response, although most people are more likely to think of the experience as “brain tingles.” If you are lucky enough to be able to experience ASMR, then you will instantly understand those phrases. Certain triggers—usually, but not always sounds—make your head tingle and send pleasurable waves down to your lower limbs. Some triggers relax you, while others will send you to sleep.
Not everyone can experience ASMR, but those who can experience it report that it helps them feel relaxed, and it reduces anxiety. It has also been shown to improve sleep quality and promote overall well-being.
Overall, ASMR is a powerful tool for improving well-being, and studies show that it can help reduce heart rate and calm the physical symptoms of anxiety.1
Some people can get a calming effect from any form of media through what is known as the expectancy effect, where they feel relaxed simply because they have been told that the media they are consuming will make them feel better.2
However, researchers have discovered that there is a noticeable change in brain activity in those who are responsive to ASMR when they are exposed to the correct triggers.3
Why Does ASMR Work?
ASMR research is still in its infancy. The phenomenon did not even have a name until 2010, and even now there are only a handful of peer-reviewed studies into the triggers and response. The research that has been done so far is limited to small sample sizes and self-reporting. This means that really, there is still a lot to learn about ASMR, why some people experience it and others do not, and why it is so pleasurable.
It’s fair to assume that everything that happens within the body happens for a reason, even if the current environment is so far removed from the environment that humans evolved in and some mechanisms no longer exist for the same purposes as they did centuries ago.
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For example, humans crave fats and sugars because that will encourage individuals to eat foods that are calorie-dense, building fat stores during times of excess so that the bodies can use those stores during times of famine.4 That worked well pre-agriculture, but now that even people on low incomes can access calorie-dense food on demand, that mechanism is making life harder for individuals, rather than better.
Additionally, humans experience intense adrenaline dumps during stressful situations.5 The “fight or flight” mechanism was beneficial when fighting or running away were the correct answers to the problems humans faced. It is not so beneficial when the problem is an exam or a work meeting and later results in chronic stress.
ASMR is thought to come from another basic instinct like the two mentioned previously. If you look at the way that primates interact with newborns, and indeed the way that human parents interact with their children, you will find that there are some great similarities. Parents tend to cradle their babies, stroke their heads, and make gentle, quiet, and soothing noises.
They may whisper to their children, and if they do, then the whispering may or may not be real words. The words don’t matter, but rather, it’s the frequency of the sound and the volume that appears to be important.6 The goal of these comforting behaviors is to bond with the child through the production of oxytocin and to help the child relax with the production of endorphins and serotonin.
Since ASMR research is still at an early stage, researchers have not looked at how the parts of the brain that are activated during ASMR experiences differ between children and adults.
However, there are some theories that very young children can all experience ASMR, and it is something that many people grow out of. It is certainly possible that this is the case. Indeed, there is an example in the form of lactose intolerance. For instance, babies can usually produce lactase, but when a baby is weaned, their body will usually stop producing as much lactase unless the child is continuously exposed to dairy products.7 This is a part of the reason why lactose intolerance is less common in countries where the consumption of dairy products is a common and frequent occurrence.
Could ASMR be something that is normal for infants but that most adults grow out of? That is one theory, though it must be explored further. This may explain why some adults can still experience it, while others lose the sensitivity as they grow older.
There does appear to be a link between people who can experience ASMR and those who can experience synaesthesia, as well as those who can experience frisson. All of these are unusual responses to sound. Because of this, there are also hypotheses that people with ASMR may simply have differently wired brains.
Modern Uses for ASMR
Before the Internet, most people noticed that they were responsive to ASMR entirely by accident. They may have dozed off in the chair at the hair salon or found Bob Ross’s painting videos to be unusually enjoyable. Alternatively, perhaps they savored the quiet crinkle of opening the top seal of a jar of instant coffee a bit more than others in their household. They found those things enjoyable and pleasurable, but they did not necessarily think about it more than that, and they did not pursue such experiences as a form of relaxation.
The founding of the first ASMR Facebook group in 2010 changed things a lot. It gave people the chance to share their experiences, discuss their triggers, and share content that they enjoyed. Since then, there has been a wealth of ASMR content posted online. For example, the Gentle Whispering ASMR channel has videos with more than 20 million views on them. It’s clear that ASMR has become a huge phenomenon.
Today, people seek out ASMR for many reasons. Some people find that ASMR sends them off to sleep almost instantly, making it good for people who are struggling with an overactive mind. Some people find that if their thoughts are racing and they can’t practice mindfulness or meditation, then ASMR helps them relax more effectively.
The good part about ASMR is that there are so many different triggers, and while different people prefer different triggers, there are some common triggers that will work for the majority of ASMR-responsive people. Tapping, whispering, popping, rain, fluttering, and crinkling, if done well, are good triggers for most people.
Other Ways to Experience ASMR
Sound alone is not enough for some people. They require human contact to really experience ASMR. A good massage can produce ASMR effects, especially if the rest of the environment is correct (quiet, warm enough to be comfortable, safe). Some people experience ASMR-like sensations from a head massage and can use self-operated head massagers to bring about the response. Unfortunately, this kind of response is thought to be slightly different from true ASMR and people can become desensitized to it quickly. While head massagers are good for explaining what ASMR feels like to someone who cannot have the authentic experience, it is thought that a large part of the sensation comes from the fact that most people are not used to having their head touched in that way, so the sensation feels unusually good when it happens. With repeated use, the nerve endings become accustomed to the stimulation, and it loses its impact.
If you can’t experience ASMR, don’t worry. A lack of sensitivity to ASMR triggers does not mean that your brain is not working normally. It is more likely that the people who do experience ASMR are the ones whose brains are wired differently.
ASMR is a nice curiosity, and it is an effective means of relaxation for those that it works for, but there are plenty of other ways that you can relax without having to rely on videos or audio triggers. Look into yoga, mindfulness, massage, meditation, and even exercise for alternative ways of releasing endorphins and serotonin. There are plenty of ways to relax.
Photo credits: AlbinaGlisic/shutterstock.com, graphbottles/shutterstock.com, PetrSvoboda/shutterstock.com