I’ve been trying to write this article for half an hour, but I’m struggling to wake myself from a sleepy, trance-like stupor after watching a woman open a box very, very slowly while whispering into the camera and tapping her fingernails on the table. If that sounds odd, it’s even odder to experience: my neck and ears are tingling and I could easily climb into bed for an impromptu nap. Luckily, there appears to be a simple reason for my brain’s reaction: like approximately 20 percent of the population I’m predispositioned to Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response or ASMR.
ASMR was coined by US developer Jennifer Allen in 2010 to describe a pleasurable physiological sensation induced by listening to certain sounds. This sensation has been branded a “brain orgasm” by some, but those who experience the phenomenon say the feeling is more relaxing than it is arousing. They compare it to the calming effect of meditation or massage.
“I first remember experiencing ASMR and noting that it was a strange occurrence in my early 20s,” Jennifer told the ASMR University website in 2016. “I searched the internet a number of times for any indication of what the experience was or who else might share it, but found nothing for over a decade.” Jennifer said she would “periodically check” Google, but found nothing until she “stumbled on” a forum thread. It was titled ‘Weird sensation feels good’. “Once I read the accounts of others, I realised what I was experiencing was similar and decided to pursue answers,” she says.
Since then, ASMR has exploded. YouTube videos showing mainly female presenters tapping, whispering, flipping through the pages of a book and making soothing hand movements to stimulate what’s been called “brain tingles” started to clock up millions of views online. Insomnia and anxiety sufferers began tuning in, claiming they’d found a practical way to reduce their symptoms by watching the calming clips; while W Magazine created a successful series of ASMR-based celebrity interviews and rapper Cardi B released her own video after revealing she couldn’t sleep without tuning in. Then advertising agencies jumped on the bandwagon, producing slick commercials that tapped into the auditory phenomenon. Zoe Kravitz fronted the most famous; a Michelob Ultra beer Super Bowl advert that’s been viewed 16 million times online, taking ASMR into the mainstream.
For those whose senses are not heightened by ASMR, the sensation can understandably be difficult to understand. It doesn’t help that there’s also little in the way of substantiated research to back up what some have branded ‘weak science’.
Dr Craig Richard, founder of the ASMR University and professor of physiology at Shenandoah University in Virginia, uses this explanation for those who don’t experience brain tingles: “ASMR can feel as wonderful, mind-numbing, and relaxing as a great massage – except you can get it from watching ASMR videos, having a friend play with your hair, or having a teacher kneel down next to you and help you solve a math problem… There is a spectrum of brain tingles. Some experience them strongly, some mildly, and some not at all. Many individuals report finding ASMR videos relaxing, but never feel the brain tingles.”
“Some brains react to ASMR videos as if a caring person is right there with them.”
He believes more research is needed, which is why he’s spearheading a new study of 250,000 people into the effects of ASMR. “There are ten peer-reviewed, published research studies on ASMR,” he tells Future Women. “Many of those studies report survey data that consistently demonstrates that people find ASMR helpful for reducing their stress and falling asleep more easily. One particular study showed that heart rates are reduced during ASMR, confirming a physiological response. Our brain scan study looked at brain regions activated while watching ASMR videos. We showed that the areas of the brain activated while feeling tingles are similar to brain regions activated during bonding and caring behaviours. In other words, some brains react to ASMR videos as if a caring person is right there with them.”
Dr Richard adds that a clinical study is needed to determine the effect ASMR can have on mental health. “Our preliminary data shows that about 50 percent of individuals diagnosed with anxiety or insomnia, and about 30 percent diagnosed with depression, report that ASMR is helpful for their condition,” he explains. “Other studies have also reported supportive data for the health benefits of ASMR for various conditions. Unfortunately, no one has done a clinical study with ASMR triggers to truly know how ASMR compares with current evidence-based treatments. It is best for individuals to discuss the use of ASMR with their clinician before attempting to self-treat.”
For London-based vlogger Emma, there’s no doubting ASMR is real. She has built up a 716,000-strong fanbase through her YouTube channel, WhispersRed ASMR. Her videos range from brushing her hair with a microphone attached to the hairbrush, to tapping her nails on the contents of her handbag, and role playing a visit to the doctor’s surgery complete with soothing sound effects.
“I have experienced the ASMR sensations all of my life,” she tells Future Women. “It has always been part of my sensory experience. I discovered ASMR videos on YouTube after a car accident and subsequent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was amazing to find there was a name for the feeling I had always known, and I decided to join the community by opening a Facebook page for people in the UK to connect. After hearing of a meet up happening for ASMR content creators I decided to make a YouTube channel so I could be there.”
Emma says her videos are watched by people of all ages and genders, and she even has a channel dedicated to ASMR for children.
“Usually I just look out for sounds everywhere I am,” she explains. “Most items and situations can inspire an ASMR video, so there is an abundance of material in just day to day life.”
What’s clear is that Emma has found her own solace in ASMR.
“I do not feel set apart from other creators,” she says. “We have our differences of course as we are all different people from countries everywhere, and have a variety of tastes and styles, but we all have a love of the same thing.”
Whether you experience brain tingles or not, there’s certainly something soothing about finding a sense of community in something you love.
Image credit: Stocksy United
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