When she first felt it, she had no idea what it was. In kindergarten in central Russia, Maria and her friends would sometimes tickle each other gently, running their fingers over the skin of their forearms. For Maria, the experience was transcendent, sending a cascade of goosebumps over her head and down her back: “I would be left in a zombie-like state,” she says. “I would just be so relaxed.”
Seven years later, ASMR is having a pop culture moment—even if many of those who use it don’t know what the acronym stands for. The phenomenon’s most popular practitioners have more than half a million subscribers, and the doyenne of ASMRrtists, Maria of Gentle Whispering ASMR, has been so successful that she’s been able to quit her job to role-play soothing cosmetologists, librarians and flight attendants full-time. But what is ASMR? What function does it serve, who is drawn to it, and why? Or, as researcher Craig Richard puts it: “Why are millions of people watching someone fold a napkin?”
The first study to perform actual brain imaging (fMRI) on subjects currently experiencing ASMR tingles (as opposed to individuals who were merely able to experience the phenomenon) was published in BioImpacts in September 2018. Subjects viewed several ASMR videos with a screen and headphones while inside the MRI scanner. The study found a significant difference in brain activation between time periods when the subject reported tingling (communicated by pressing a button), as compared to time periods when they were watching a video but not reporting tingling (communicated by pressing a different button, to control for brain activation effects caused by merely pressing a button). They concluded that "the brain regions found most active during the tingling sensations were the nucleus accumbens, mPFC, insula and secondary somatosensory cortex", and suggested that these were similar to "activation of brain regions previously observed during experiences like social bonding and musical frisson".
Think about nails scratching a chalkboard for one second. Are you flinching? One study found that this sound literally accelerated the participants’ stress levels, quickening heart rates, heightening blood pressure and even altering the skin’s electrical conductivity. In the study, the scientists discovered that—when stimulated with this screeching sound, the auditory cortex interacted with the amygdala, which controls responses related to fear and emotions.
The most popular source of stimuli reported by subjects to be effective in triggering ASMR is video. Videos reported being effective in triggering ASMR fall into two categories, identified and named by the community as 'Intentional' and 'Unintentional'. Intentional media is created by those known within the community as 'ASMRtists' with the purpose of triggering ASMR in viewers and listeners. Unintentional media is that made for other purposes, often before attention was drawn to the phenomenon in 2007, but which some subjects discover to be effective in triggering ASMR. One early unintentional example is the Art Bears song 'The Bath of Stars.' Another example of unintentional media several journalists have noted is of famed painter Bob Ross. In episodes of his popular television series The Joy of Painting both broadcast and on YouTube, his soft, gentle speaking mannerisms and the sound of him painting and his tools trigger the effect on many of his viewers. The work of stop-motion filmmaker PES is also often noted.
What is ASMR? For a trend so wildly popular, you probably haven’t heard of it. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and it’s a strange recent phenomenon. We all find certain sounds mentally and physically stimulating—some things send a shiver down our spines, create a sensation in the back of our heads. ASMR is a type of sensory stimulus that helps you to relax! In fact, there’s an entire section of Youtube videos and sound creation that is meant to help people feel good.
Looking for Amsers to this riddle for 35 years. I was born in ’72, experienced AMSR since childhood, asked thousands of people through my life, none empathised with me, I thought I was unique or touched in the head. I would activate usually from watching people performing simple tasks, like drawing and conversing while in deep artistic thought (Graffiti Artist since ’85), or watching a Teacher perform a task for the class.
It turns out I had experienced my first incident of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), though I would not find that out until earlier this year when I researched hypnosis videos on YouTube that supposedly help you sleep better. ASMR isn’t a phenomenon confirmed by science, and it’s only in recent years, after people across the world began to report their ASMR experiences on the web, that scientists have even started to study it.
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.
ASMR is usually precipitated by stimuli referred to as 'triggers'. ASMR triggers, which are most commonly auditory and visual, may be encountered through the interpersonal interactions of daily life. Additionally, ASMR is often triggered by exposure to specific audio and video. Such media may be specially made with the specific purpose of triggering ASMR or originally created for other purposes and later discovered to be effective as a trigger of the experience.