Post No.: 0801
ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is that nice tingly feeling around the scalp, neck and upper body. It’s a soothing sensation that can be triggered by certain kinds of visual, audio or tactile stimuli. Some people can even intentionally trigger the feeling without external stimuli through exercising some conscious attentional control. Some experience it more than others, and different stimuli work better for different individuals. It paradoxically involves both feelings of relaxation and arousal, calmness and excitement.
It’s arguably the opposite feeling to misophonia, or when you hear claws scratching down a chalkboard! ASMR is similarly an impulsive visceral reaction, but one that’s super pleasant instead of horribly piercing. It’s an enjoyable form of paresthesia (a sensation felt on the skin with no apparent physical cause).
ASMR can be brought about by gentle events where one is fully mentally present in a given moment, such as when concentrating on listening to somebody talking quietly, watching someone attentively execute a mundane task like folding clothes, or when savouring a warm cosy moment after receiving an altruistic act of kindness or tender personal attention. It can thus accompany feelings of bonding and satisfaction.
The feeling is quite subjective or just difficult to express in words – some describe it as ‘tingles’, or ‘effervescent shivers down the spine’, ‘static coursing through the body’, ‘a warm fuzziness’ or like ‘waves pulsating though the head’. It arguably overlaps with frisson, auditory-tactile synaesthesia (as if being physically touched by sounds), or the feeling of ‘goose bumps’ or ‘chills’ like when listening to certain passages of music. Maybe it’s the concentration itself or something about the particular sounds?
Well one of the most popular ASMR sounds is probably the sound of crinkling paper or bubble wrap. Gentle tapping sounds are another popular trigger. (Many people find the sound of light rain pattering outside on the roof or windows when indoors inherently soothing.) Listening to someone delicately whispering in an otherwise quiet room can get it going too. Tactilely, receiving personal attention like a relaxing head massage or grooming administered by someone you trust, or using one of those scalp massaging devices, works for some. Visually, some experience the response when watching videos of paint being mixed or when soft objects are being neatly sliced.
Looking at the thumbnails of many ASMR videos online, they’re usually female performers in highly intimate looking-down-the-camera setups (with binaural recordings that, if listened to with headphones rather than loudspeakers, mimics them being right there, whispering into one ear of yours then another, as closely as possible), hence to those who’ve not experienced ASMR before, they may assume that it’s all to do with something sexual. But that’s a misunderstanding or narrow understanding of ASMR. There are indeed a subset of individuals who do consider ASMR sexually arousing and erotic, and they’re served by the subgenre of ASMRotica, but – while I don’t personally think we should shame anyone if they find that this sensation turns them on – this psychosexual image of ASMR perhaps does not help the field of research into ASMR as a wider therapeutic relaxing tool.
To those who experience it, it is a relaxing sensation, and can thus help them to fall asleep. It can help people feel calmer, and it shows in experiments via reducing their blood pressure and lowering their heart rate. Yet they’ll still feel somewhat aroused (which in psychology means generally activated, alert or stimulated – not specifically sexually), and their skin may get a little sweaty.
Those who regularly experience ASMR report lower levels of stress, sadness and other negative or dysphoric emotions. The benefits appear similar to with mindfulness meditation. Well they’re both all about paying attention after all. Before the term ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’ was settled upon, people described the sensation by many different names – one of which was ‘attention-induced euphoria’. Thus from the very start there was an understanding that it was related to concentrating and paying close mindful attention to certain stimuli.
And that’s something we can all try to do more of in our daily lives, like carefully listening to the sounds of our surroundings or paying attention to every morsel of food we’re chewing and tasting.
If you want to discover what kinds of sounds or visuals best trigger the response for you – search online for something like ‘100 ASMR triggers’ and take note of which things do it for you. From there, you can then search specifically for more of those kinds of content. Once you switch on your awareness for it and go looking for it, you will most likely find it.
And, like with mindfulness meditation, it doesn’t need to cost a thing to practise and you can do it by yourself at home or in some other private space. Here, it’s relatively quick and easy to find and watch an online video. A lot of people watch these videos to help them with their anxiety, pain or sleeping problems.
After experiencing the furry sensation of ASMR for several minutes or more and once you re-enter back into the wider world – you may feel ultra sensitive to the sounds of your environment because your attention and awareness have been turned up to 11. Everything sounds much louder and perhaps a bit overwhelming for a moment.
According to research with fMRI scans – brain areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex (which is associated with social behaviours including grooming), and the secondary somatosensory cortex (which is associated with the sensation of touch), are activated more strongly during ASMR compared to control periods.
But much more research into the mechanisms and mental health benefits of ASMR is currently required – although it does seem to be only associated with positive feelings. Maybe one day it will be prescribed as a therapeutic by mainstream healthcare services to patients of stress or sleep problems?
Not everyone has experienced it, yet many have and it does exist (similar to like just because you may not have experienced depression or migraines before, it doesn’t mean other people haven’t or don’t). ASMR is not merely a recent phenomenon either – it’s an example of where we’ve finally put a universally-accepted name or label to something that many people have felt before but previously didn’t know what to call their experience until now. (There are cases of medical conditions that are rare but real, but the people who experience it are often not believed because what they experience doesn’t yet have a name.) This has in turn finally helped us to realise that we’re not alone in feeling it, and now we can discuss it with others knowing that we’re referring to the same thing.
Woof. You can reply to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below if you wish to share your hypotheses on the neuroscience of ASMR, or want to tell us the benefits you feel you derive from experiencing the ‘tingles’?