What is ASMR?

Fact-Checked

ASMR describes the euphoric tingling sensation people feel in response to certain visuals and sounds. The tingling often begins in the head, shoulders, or spine before spreading to other areas of the body, ultimately creating a blissful sense of relaxation. ASMR triggers vary and are individualized to the person, but they often involve slow, repetitive, or ordinary activities like hair brushing, folding towels, whispering, or finger tapping.

The term ASMR also comes from a surprisingly ordinary origin: a Facebook group. A woman named Jennifer Allen coined the term in 2010 when she started a Facebook group to find other people like her who felt these sensations.

What Does ASMR Feel Like?

Individuals describe ASMR as a feel-good, tingling sensation that begins in the scalp. The calming feeling begins as a response to certain sounds or visuals, known as ASMR triggers. As the person keeps listening or watching, the tingling sensation slowly spreads through their body, from the head and shoulders down into the spine, lower back, arms, and legs.

The main sensation of ASMR is one of relaxation or euphoria, not arousal. Because the triggers can be so unique and seemingly quirky to individuals who don’t experience ASMR, there can be a misperception that ASMR is arousing or sexual. However, only 5 percent of individuals who experience ASMR describe it as sexually stimulating.

How Does ASMR Work?

ASMR usually begins when individuals watch or listen to videos that contain their audio or visual triggers. As they watch, they’ll begin feeling the tingling sensation in their head, which may spread throughout their body and intensify. The sounds or videos that trigger ASMR vary depending on the individual, but usually fall into one of two categories: personal attention and repetitive tasks.

  • Personal attention triggers involve role play that ranges from a person simply whispering into a microphone to someone getting their hair brushed.
  • Task-based triggers may include finger tapping, crinkling paper, stirring food, or folding towels.

The most common ASMR triggers are whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds, and slow or repetitive movements. Around three-quarters of people who engage in ASMR respond to whispering. A commonality among ASMR sounds is their quiet, intimate nature. Sounds of someone painting or drawing are common triggers, whereas airplane or vacuum cleaner noises are not.

ASMR videos can range in length, from 15 minutes to nearly three hours. They’re designed to be long enough to allow the viewer to relax and even fall asleep while watching them.

Examples of ASMR Videos

ASMR videos may focus on a single trigger, but more often incorporate multiple triggers over the length of a video. Here are a few examples.

  • Brushing sounds: This video focuses on a single trigger -- brushing sounds -- and taps different brushes against the microphone for 30 minutes.
  • Haircut simulation: In this video, the YouTuber simulates cutting your hair, brushing it, spraying it, and flipping through pages of a beauty magazine while whispering to you.
  • Nail polish application: Videos like these show a YouTuber applying nail polish and tapping manicured nails against various objects.
  • Baking ASMR: In this video, the Youtuber pours water, sifts flour, cracks eggs, and stirs ingredients to bake a cake.
  • Crisp sounds: This video includes close-up shots of hands slowly turning pieces of paper, rolling through diamonds, and crinkling foil.

You can usually tell you are watching an ASMR video by the way it is filmed, although the video title will make it obvious. ASMR videos pay special attention to the sound quality, with microphones placed very close to the trigger so they can capture and amplify the sound. Items of focus are also placed close to the camera, to allow the viewer to focus and relax. For example, an ASMR baking video will have the camera and microphone positioned right next to the food, so the viewer can hear the stirring, sifting, and kneading sounds.

What’s the Science Behind ASMR?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much. While the term was coined in 2010, researchers are just beginning to study ASMR. Most of the information we have about ASMR is anecdotal, and not everyone experiences ASMR. However, the current research suggests that your ability to experience ASMR may have something to do with wiring in your brain.

One of the first peer-reviewed studies on ASMR, published in 2015, noted an overlap between ASMR and synesthesia, a neurological condition where multiple senses get stimulated at the same time, and in a way that’s atypical for most people. For example, a person with synesthesia may say they “hear color” or “taste sounds.” In the general population, only 2 to 4 percent of people have synesthesia, but 6 percent of people with ASMR also have synesthesia.

In a later study, researchers performed MRI scans on participants to see if this tendency to “blend” sensory experiences may originate in the brain. When comparing individuals who experience ASMR against controls, the researchers found that those with ASMR had increased connectivity in certain regions of their brain, and reduced connectivity in others -- specifically between the frontal lobes and sensory regions in the brain. This reduced connectivity may make it easier for sensory-emotional associations to occur when a person encounters an ASMR trigger.

Individuals with ASMR also score significantly higher on some personality traits like Openness-to-Experience. Higher Openness-to-Experience scores correlate with greater sensitivity to sensory experiences.

How Can ASMR Help Sleep?

While people use ASMR to relax, most people use it specifically to help them fall asleep. Multiple studies have shown that when people with ASMR watch a video, it helps them relax, relieves their stress, and makes it easier for them to fall asleep. The positive impacts of ASMR may aid sleep in several ways.

Pain Relief

Over half of people with insomnia live with chronic pain. Even temporary pain makes it challenging for the body to relax enough to fall asleep. Studies show that when people with ASMR watch videos, they experience pain relief that lasts for several hours.

Improved Mood

Individuals with ASMR also experience a feeling of wellbeing after watching videos. Like the pain relief, these improvements in mood last for several hours afterward -- even if the tingling sensations do not occur.

These improvements in mood tend to be more pronounced among individuals with moderate to severe depression. Individuals with ASMR tend to score higher on the neuroticism personality trait, which can be associated with depression and lower emotional stability.

However, this mood-lifting effect only occurs among individuals capable of experiencing ASMR. ASMR videos do not have the same uplifting effect on those who do not engage in ASMR.

Lower Stress

Difficulty sleeping is a common symptom of depression, but even everyday stress can interfere with sleep. It elevates your heart rate and makes it harder to relax and fall asleep.

Fortunately, watching an ASMR video can significantly lower the heart rate of people who experience ASMR. This reduction in heart rate may mimic the relaxation that naturally occurs as one falls asleep, while also lowering one’s stress levels.

How Do You Know if You Can Experience ASMR?

Most people recognize they can experience ASMR in childhood before age 10, although onset can occur in adulthood. While ASMR videos are very popular, the overall prevalence of ASMR is not yet known.

If you’re unsure if you have ASMR, try searching for “asmr” on YouTube. Several ASMR YouTubers (known as ASMRtists) have subscriber counts over 100,000, with videos that have millions of views. If you find a trigger that works for you, you can search for ASMR videos with that sound or visual, or keep exploring.

To enhance the ASMR experience, try listening in a quiet, relaxed place like your bedroom. Binaural headphones can also enhance the sound of ASMR.

References

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  3. 3. Accessed October 2020.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25566110/
  4. 4. Accessed October 2020.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22131906/
  5. 5. Accessed October 2020.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27196787/
  6. 6. Accessed October 2020.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24290442/
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