The term ASMR was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a 39-year-old penetration tester. “For years I thought, ‘Jeez, maybe I have a brain tumour or something,’” she recalls. From 1999 onwards, Allen searched steadfastly for others like her online. In the late noughties, she stumbled upon a SteadyHealth.com forum in which a user named okaywhatever51838 discussed a “weird sensation” that “feels good”.
As a penny slid across the concrete porch, it made a pleasant grating sound that, when combined with my uncle’s voice, produced the oddest sensations in me. I felt a “fuzzy” warm sensation inside my skull, as if my brain was floating in a container of heated seltzer water. As my uncle continued to count and slide the pennies, the warm feeling began to extend down my spine and arms. Soon, my entire upper body was cocooned in this warmth and tingling, and I could have listened to my uncle slowly count the pennies for the rest of my life. It was, and remains to this day, one of the most euphoric sensations I have ever experienced.
I had an abnormal psychology professor in undergrad that would have me drooling by the end of class because her voice was so “soothing”. Lately, I have found that instructional videos via Youtube do the trick. I’m embarrassed to say, but I watched a video of some random guy giving a tutorial on how to properly clean out your ear for roughly a year (lol). I can watch nearly anything instructional to induce the sensation, but I am drawn to videos in which the narrator has an accent.
Smith speculates that ASMR may be similar to synesthesia, the fascinating neurological condition in which people see numbers in color and “taste” shapes. “In synesthesia,” he says, “there have been some studies that show there’s slightly atypical wiring in the brain that leads to slightly different sensory associations, and I think that may be the same thing we have here.”
ASMR is described as a pleasurable tingling that begins in the head and scalp, shimmies down the spine and relaxes the entire body. Maria — she asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons; her videos have sometimes attracted unwanted attention — experiences ASMR, and her YouTube channel, GentleWhispering, melds her personal tingle-triggers with others suggested by her fans. The resulting videos have drawn more than 87 million views, making Maria the premier celebrity of a controversial but increasingly recognized phenomenon.
But creating an ASMR video isn't as simple as filming for an hour. Maria said her more complex videos take about three days to create. She'll write up a script with specific soothing words she should be using and do research into what sounds she should incorporate. She tests out the appropriate lighting and sound levels before filming. She sets up microphones positioned where a viewer's ears would be in real life, and places the lens where a onlooker's eyes would be. Then, after filming the video, she goes into post-production, which includes a special ear toward sound to remove any clap or loud noise.
Having previously practiced yoga and meditation for over 10 years, I can induce ASMR at will, or "bliss", as it's called in the spiritual community. It's often part of the very first steps on a spiritual journey, though no requirement. These videos didn't induce ASMR in me though, so maybe it's a different sensation than "bliss", or different triggers.
I’m glad that it’s at least showing up for you occasionally. It certainly seems to affect people differently and it’s an incredibly strange, though wonderful, phenomenon. I don’t pretend to understand it fully myself, and haven’t done research on it other than to check if it’s harmful, which from what I’ve seen doesn’t seem to be an issue. My reactions seem to have gotten more intense lately, sometimes to the point of having to pause the video for a short while in order to calm it down a bit.
While little scientific research has been conducted into potential neurobiological correlates to the perceptual phenomenon known as 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (ASMR), with a consequent dearth of data with which to either explain or refute its physical nature, there is voluminous anecdotal literature comprising personal commentary and intimate disclosure of subjective experiences distributed across forums, blogs, and YouTube comments by hundreds of thousands of people. Within this literature, in addition to the original consensus that ASMR is euphoric but non-sexual in nature, a further point of continued majority agreement within the community of those who experience it is that they fall into two broad categories of subjects.
“Our research studies consistently show that ASMR is a relaxing, calming sensation that increases feelings of social connectedness,” Giulia Poerio (a co-author of the study), told Newsweek. “Importantly, we found that ASMR videos produce significant reductions in heart rate in people who experience ASMR. So we now have more objective evidence of the idea that ASMR is relaxing. It’s not just people telling us that ASMR makes them feel relaxed—their physiology is telling us the same thing too.”
The 21-year-old woman behind ASMR Darling, a YouTube channel with more than two million subscribers, said she goes only by her first name, Taylor, because she has experienced stalking and a public doxxing that made her fear for her safety. She said she made her first video when she was a teenager. “Being that young and being sexualized like that, it wasn’t a good confidence boost,” she said.
1. Do you have different reactions depending on who is the source of the sound? For example, I have very distinctive reactions, i.e. if someone from my relatives does the mouth sounds, I get irritated and at times even angry. I even leave the kitchen if I hear my relatives making the sounds while eating. Purely biological, can’t explain it. The sounds are unpleasant for me. But if a random person or someone I barely know from an opposite sex does the mouth sounds, I can get ASMR or pleasurable feelings.
“There needs to be a careful balance between skepticism and open-mindedness when investigating ASMR,” the Sheffield group say. “There is also of course the danger that ASMR videos get picked up by people who might try and use them to market pseudoscience or mental health benefits (without the evidence to support it), and inadvertently spread misinformation about it, which would of course damage the reputation of any genuine research going on,” they add. We’ve already started to see cases of this – just this week, in an interview with the Daily Mail, ASMR video producer Lauren Ostrowksi Fenton claimed that the sensation is produced by oxytocin, which she refers to as “the cuddle hormone, the hugging hormone, or the feel-good hormone”. Besides the fact that there’s simply no evidence that oxytocin is responsible for the sensation, the science behind the claim that oxytocin is a “hug hormone” is itself extremely weak.
ASMR has also been called a "brain orgasm" because of gratification it can give viewers, but for the majority of people, there's no sexual connection. A study in PeerJ published in March 2015 found that 98 percent of the 475 study participants used it for relaxation, with 82 percent using it to help them sleep and 70 percent for stress relief. Only 5 percent used it for sexual stimulation, with the vast majority saying it brought no sexual pleasure.
However, Tony Ro, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in an email that the University of Winnipeg study “is unfortunately not as revealing or informative as it could have been,” given its small size and the fact that researchers were measuring subjects at rest, rather than while experiencing ASMR. The resting state differences could be due to other factors, like higher rates of anxiety or depression, he says. Still, writes Ro, who researches synesthesia and has also been intrigued by ASMR for a few years, “I do think that ASMR may be a form of synesthesia.”
ASMR seems to need an emotional component to it, and Winter says that’s not accidental. “Some things may remind you of your mother or being a kid,” he says. “I’d guess that it’s no accident that a lot of the videos of someone whispering feature an attractive woman, which make you think of your mom whispering to you when you went to sleep.” Those memories the videos evoke are likely comforting, and can shift people into a more relaxed state that then helps them fall asleep, he says.
In the first peer-reviewed article on ASMR, published in Perspectives in Biology in summer 2013, Nitin Ahuja, who was at the time of publication a medical resident at the University of Virginia, invited conjecture on whether the receipt of simulated medical attention might have some tangible therapeutic value for the recipient, comparing the purported positive outcome of clinical role play ASMR videos with the themes of the novel Love in the Ruins by author and physician Walker Percy, published in 1971.