A look at the science behind the strange whispering videos that have taken over one corner of the internet.
ASMR has taken the media by storm lately – you may have read coverage from BBC News, the New York Times, or one of the countless other sources in recent months.
But what does ASMR stand for, and why are hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to watch amateur videos of people whispering into their microphones?
What is ASMR?
ASMR is short for “autonomous sensory meridian response”, but that doesn’t make things any clearer, does it?
“ASMR-sensitive individuals”, or people who experience ASMR, describe it as a pleasant tingling in the head and neck along with feelings of relaxation and mild euphoria which occur in response to certain types of gentle sounds and touches referred to as “ASMR triggers”.
A recent study of 813 ASMR-sensitive people revealed that the most common triggers were:
- People speaking softly
- Having your hair played with/brushed
- Someone paying close personal attention to you
- Getting a haircut
- Interaction with your face or head
- Tapping on hard surfaces (e.g. wood)
- Watching people do things in a careful, attentive way (e.g. filling out a form)
- Watching hand movements
- Scratching sounds
- Water/fluid sounds
- Observing/listening to someone eating
The ASMR community
A large community has popped up online, made up of people who create videos to provoke an ASMR response and those who watch them.
Many of these videos take the form of role-plays which encompass some of the above triggers. Common themes include spa treatments, doctor’s or optician’s examination, hair cuts, and art lessons.
Viewers say they watch ASMR videos to help them relax, to fall asleep more easily, to deal with stress or for a positive effect on their mood (source).
How does it work?
That’s all very well, but is there any scientific research to back up these effects?
Experts have suggested a link between ASMR and the well-established phenomenon of frisson or “chills” from pleasurable emotional experiences such as listening to music or awe-inspiring surroundings.
However, while frisson causes physiological signs of excitement such as raised heart rate, a 2018 study found that ASMR reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance – both indicators of relaxation.
A further study uncovered evidence that suggests a connection between ASMR and mindfulness.
Researchers who took fMRI scans of the brains of participants as they watched ASMR videos observed activation in regions associated with reward and emotional arousal.
It follows that ASMR could lead to the release of neurochemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin which make people feel comfort, relaxation and drowsiness.
Can ASMR help with anxiety?
Results so far have been promising, however currently published studies have not looked at populations suffering from anxiety disorders. Further research is required before we can come to any conclusions about the usefulness of ASMR for people suffering from anxiety.