What ASMR Will Do for You
Ten years ago, you could have been forgiven for having never heard of ASMR — you might have been familiar with what it was, even if you didn't know the term for it. Five years ago, you'd still get a pass: maybe you'd heard the name, maybe you hadn't. But today, if you haven't seen "ASMR" go by on your social media, you must have been living under a rock (and I know that you do have social media because you're listening to a podcast right now, and that's even more archaic). ASMR is a pleasant tingling sensation that some people experience when they watch a certain type of pleasurably relaxing video, and it's triggered a whole cottage industry in the creation of such videos. So the many of us who have never experienced this claimed ASMR sensation are left wondering: Is this a real thing?
People describe the experience in varying ways, but the most common is a pleasant tingling like pins & needles or goosebumps on the scalp, which then may spread to the spine and neck or down the back. It's nearly always pleasurable, sometimes intensely so. It's been called a brain-gasm by some; even though it's not explicitly sexual, some report it can put them in the mood. The triggers tend to be stimuli that are relaxing, intimate, comforting, hypnotic, and personal.
First of all, what's in a name? It's important to note that the term ASMR, although it sounds sciencey, does not come from the science community at all. It was invented by a layperson, Jennifer Allen, in 2010. She'd been experiencing the sensation for a long time and wanted to start a Facebook group about it, but she couldn't find any name or formal description for the phenomenon. So she made one up. She called it the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, with "meridian" referring to the pseudoscientific "energy meridians" that carry the hypothetical flow of qi in traditional Chinese medicine.
Whatever it's called, enough people heard about it who all raised their hands and said "I get that too!" and the online communities filled quickly. Discussion of popular triggers — getting a haircut, listening to peaceful repetitive sounds, even watching the old Bob Ross painting show on TV or Roy Underhills' The Woodwright's Shop (I've even seen glowing recommendations for the Teletubbies) — all this led to people creating online content specifically intended to provoke an ASMR response. There are countless channels on YouTube and TikTok. Think of very long, slow, calming shows, shot on sets that look like massage studios with dim colored lights, very soft music, a host who whispers comfortingly. They may fold napkins, crumple paper, stir bowls of soup, tap on things, brush the camera lens, anything that seems close-up and personal and intimate — and some of these have tens of millions of views. Many more are the kind of videos simply tagged as "satisfying" — methodical slicing of clay, pressing things into forms, cutting or whittling soap, or watching machines that wind ropes, wrap things, cut grooves — anything at all that's hypnotically repetitive. There are creators making millions of dollars a year just making videos intended to trigger ASMR.
We can use the Google Trends web tool to track the popularity of a given topic over time. When we apply the search term "ASMR", we can see that there was no mention of it at all prior to Jennifer Allen inventing the term, obviously. Then it began to show trackable numbers throughout 2011, and since then, it's grown steadily all the way through the present date. This tracks well with the steady growth of YouTube and TikTok channels of ASMR content. Today it represents a solid genre segment in online media.
When this topic was first suggested to me a few years ago, I had never heard of it. A few quick online searches told me it didn't seem to be any big deal. That's no longer the case; these days I get ASMR video channels recommended to me by the algorithms wherever I turn, even though it's not something I'd ever watched. So I really had no idea where this episode was going to lead. Is ASMR simply a passing fad like the Tide Pod Challenge? Is it a scientific field, possibly a relaxation technique in medicine or psychology? Is it a full-throttle scam, some pseudoscientific, dime-a-dozen, self-help technique sold by "Certified Coaches" who will help you unlock your fullest potential? In my work I encounter all of these regularly, and quite frankly, I saw signs of each of these in ASMR.
Really all of these questions can be answered by surveying the scientific literature to see what's been learned about ASMR. Luckily, the body of work that exists does use the term ASMR, which makes it possible to do a literature search. This tells us two things: first, that nobody had bothered to study it before the made-up name became popular; and second, that nobody has decided it needs to have an actual scientific name (obviously the term "meridian" would be somewhat problematic as a scientific name). So we have a bunch of scientists of various disciplines who have been looking at ASMR, but they're not really too sure what they're looking at, and not at a point where they're ready to declare that there is a concrete medical or psychological application for it.
Anyway, what's there to study? The whole thing starts with plain old relaxation, and that doesn't need a new name. Relaxation is great, whether it's by reading a book, meditating, chilling in a hammock, or even watching satisfying videos; it reduces stress and anxiety, and that has undeniable health benefits. Relaxation and stress reduction are deactivating. But ASMR is something more, it's something on top of that, it's also activating this new sensation even as the rest of the body is deactivating. And that is something worth studying.
One of the first published studies came in 2015 in the journal PeerJ used an online questionnaire to ask 475 people who watch ASMR videos all sorts of questions. The overall conclusion was that it's real, and it can be consistently induced in susceptible people by reliable triggers. The most common of these were whispering, personal attention, and crisp sounds such as fingernail tapping or crinkling foil. The sensation significantly boosted their mood, and this effect lasted up to 3 hours.
Then in 2016, a study in the International Journal of School & Educational Psychology did a literature review to learn more about a suggestion made in 2014: that the ASMR sensation may simply be frisson. This is the name for what we commonly call "shivers up the spine" when something gives us the chills, as an emotional response to music or other stimuli. It often includes goosebumps and pupil dilation, but it's mainly characterized by skin tingling, called paresthesia. The authors' conclusion was that ASMR and frisson are at least related, and perhaps variations of the same phenomenon. My own read was that they sound very much like two different names for the same thing.
In 2017, another survey was published, this time in Frontiers in Psychology. This one looked at five personality factors of 290 people who experience ASMR compared to 290 others who don't. They found ASMR experiencers score significantly higher on openness to new experiences and neuroticism, and significantly lower on conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. Tellingly, the authors found that these results were strongly consistent with published personality factors associated with frisson.
The similarity to frisson was underscored by a 2018 article in PLOS One which did a lab study of 56 ASMR experiencers and 56 controls. They watched ASMR videos, and the ASMR experiencers showed a significant increase in skin conductance levels, just like frisson experiencers.
Also in 2018, researchers finally decided to put ASMR experiencers into the fMRI machine to see exactly what goes on in their brains when the tingling sensation strikes. It was a small study, only ten participants, and it was published in the journal BioImpacts. The results are probably something you can guess by now. The subjects watched ASMR videos while in the fMRI machine, and when the tingling sensation struck, their brains showed significant activation in several regions. These included all the same regions as those that activate during frisson — except one, the mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex). During ASMR, the mPFC activation increases; but during frisson, it decreases. The ASMR events also activated brain regions associated with relaxation and social bonding — two of the primary qualities of the ASMR sensations reported by those who get them.
Way back in 2012, Dr. Steven Novella suggested in the Neurologica Blog that the ASMR sensation might be a type of seizure, but nobody had really ever investigated this. But with the convergence of ASMR and frisson in the literature, this isn't really the case anymore, because the relationship between frisson and seizure has absolutely been studied. Seizure is a scary word but all it really means is an unusual, atypical burst of electrical activity among brain cells, which can have unpredictable results on whatever part of the body might be associated with those cells. One such study was presented at the 2019 International Joint Conference on Neural Networks. Study participants wore electrodermal activity sensors while listening to various types of music, and what the researchers found was that skin conductance results reliably correlated to the genre of music being played. Noting that one type of epileptic seizure can be triggered by nothing more than hearing music (it's called musicogenic epilepsy), the researchers wondered if some extension of this kind of study might offer potential treatments for musicogenic epilepsy. This relationship between seizures and frisson — and by extension, to ASMR — is not yet thoroughly understood, but the body of research on musicogenic epilepsy is vast and goes back decades. Who knows, it may well turn out to be the case that ASMR videos on YouTube might actually end up playing some role in the treatment or prevention of seizures.
The question that's been burning in your mind is how many people are susceptible to ASMR? The reason I haven't given any answer to this basic question is that we don't really have one. There does not appear to be any data on this yet. Lots of estimates are published, but they're just that, estimates. Most say about 20%. Some say estimates range from 20% to 70%. Your guess is as good as mine; my guess is something less than half of people. I will gladly post an update if any solid numbers come out from further research.
And so there we have it, about as clear a survey of what we know so far about ASMR as is possible to put into a 10-minute podcast. It's basically another way to experience frisson, though it may be slightly distinct physiologically. It's an excellent form of relaxation, stress reduction, and sleep inducement, at least for that unknown percentage of people who are susceptible to it. Beyond that, there's not a whole lot we can say about it except that it's real and it seems to be pretty nice. I just wish it wasn't named after qi.
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