What is ASMR?
Written By: Matthew Whittle
Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Sherrie Neustein
If you experience a static-like tingling sensation that travels down your body whenever you hear whispering voices or crunching leaves, you are not alone. This phenomenon is known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, and feelings of relaxation and contentment often accompany the response.
The term ASMR is fairly new, and little is known about why some people experience this sensation in the presence of certain audio-visual cues. Not everyone responds positively to these stimuli – some people find them distracting or annoying – but studies suggest exposure to ASMR triggers can reduce stress, promote relaxation, and help people fall asleep.
What Is ASMR?
For most people, ASMR begins as a gentle tingling sensation in the scalp and back of the neck, then travels down the spine and limbs. Soothing audio-visual stimuli are believed to be the primary cause of ASMR.
The term ASMR was first coined in 2010 and despite wide popular interest, the topic has not been extensively studied. Furthermore, researchers have not identified the psychological underpinnings that cause people to experience ASMR. While much remains unknown about the origins and causes of ASMR, researchers have noted physiological effects such as reduced heart rate and an increase in skin conductance, both of which are associated with a state of relaxation.
Since some people experience ASMR and others do not, the phenomenon is considered non-universal. Common ASMR triggers among those who report ASMR sensations include:
- Whispering or soft voices
- Receiving close personal attention, such as someone brushing your hair
- Crinkling aluminum foil, and other crisp sounds
- Slow and/or repetitive movements
- Scratching and tapping sounds
- Airplane noise
- Vacuum noise
Soundless stimuli, such as a smiling person or a certain hand movement, can also serve as ASMR triggers.
There appears to be a distinction between ASMR and the aesthetic chills people experience after listening to a moving piece of music or watching an emotionally charged scene in a movie or on television. While both of these experiences are similar, aesthetic chills have been linked to an increased heart rate.
Researchers have also noted similarities between ASMR and misophonia, a condition characterized by intense feelings of anger, sadness, or aversion in the presence of certain man-made sounds, such as chewing or loud breathing. Studies suggest people with misophonia may be more likely to experience ASMR because both depend on a heightened sensitivity to sound.
Some researchers conceptualize both ASMR and misophonia in the same category as synesthesia, in which sensory stimuli provoke unusual associations such as someone seeing the number 7 as green. Preliminary research suggests that people who respond to ASMR triggers experience unique connections in the brain that make it more likely for them to blend sensory and emotional experiences.
Do ASMR Sounds Improve Sleep?
Many people who experience ASMR claim that listening to ASMR triggers before bed helps them fall asleep. In one survey, 81% of respondents stated their preferred time for listening to ASMR triggers was in the evening before bed. While using ASMR to induce sleepiness appears to be common among people who respond to it, these claims are mostly anecdotal in nature and researchers have yet to confirm whether ASMR can consistently promote sleepiness on an emotional and physiological level for those who respond to it.
ASMR is thought to promote comfort and relaxation by invoking an emotional response that is similar to the way people feel during interactions between parents and children, loved ones, and close friends. During these so-called affiliative behaviors, the body releases dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, which induce feelings of sleepiness and relaxation.
Some people claim that ASMR can alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Substantiating such claims is difficult without empirical evidence or rigorous scientific research concerning the relationship between ASMR and these conditions. However, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain are all proven barriers to healthy sleep and leading risk factors for sleep disorders like insomnia.
How Should I Use ASMR for Sleep?
More research is needed to understand ASMR’s sleep-inducing capabilities and optimize ASMR triggers for bedtime listening. If ASMR works for you, then combining ASMR triggers with healthy sleep hygiene habits may help you relax for sleep.
As ASMR has grown increasingly popular over the last decade, ASMR videos have become widespread on websites like YouTube. Self-described “ASMRtists” upload content intended to facilitate ASMR and promote relaxation. These clips often depict haircuts, massages, and other scenarios designed to trigger feelings of ASMR.
Additionally, many sound machines sold today come equipped with programs containing ambient noises that can produce ASMR-like effects such as wind, ocean waves, and light conversation in a crowded room.
Watching ASMR videos using a smartphone, tablet, computer, or television may interfere with – rather than promote – healthy sleep. The screens of these devices emit blue light, which has been shown to suppress the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and increase feelings of alertness. Those who use ASMR triggers before bed may experience better sleep with programs that are exclusively audio-based and do not require looking at a digital screen.
One study proposed the idea of combining ASMR triggers with binaural beats, a type of sound wave therapy that involves simultaneously playing two similar tones, one in each ear, to optimize brain waves. Binaural beats are of interest for their potential to enhance sleep, but they can be unpleasant to listen to. When masking these beats with natural ASMR triggers such as rain and ocean waves, participants found the blended auditory stimulus less jarring and more relaxing than binaural beats on their own.
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