A few weeks ago, Maria says, she was contacted by a young woman whose grandmother was in a hospice. The elderly woman was no longer very responsive, but when the granddaughter played Maria’s videos, “it made her grandmother happy and calmed her down,” Maria says, recalling the woman’s message. “She said, ‘This is so great, because we don’t know how else to help her.’ ”
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”.
I used to think it was something religious then it was triggered by non religious music. I think mine is tied to ideas that seem to be deep and profound to me. When I really feel my place as one human among billions that is hurling through space on a small rock that is spinning around a constant nuclear fusion explosion. Connection to Humanity and Beauty.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a curious phenomenon. Those who experience it often characterise it as a tingling sensation in the back of the head or neck, or another part of the body, in response to some sort of sensory stimulus. That stimulus could be anything, but over the past few years, a subculture has developed around YouTube videos, and their growing popularity was the focus of a video posted on the Guardian this last week. It’s well worth a watch, but I couldn’t help but feel it would have been a bit more interesting if there had been some scientific background in it. The trouble is, there isn’t actually much research on ASMR out there.
In 2019, Anheuser-Busch debuted a commercial advertisement that was aired during the 2019 Super Bowl for their Michelob Ultra "Pure Gold" organic beer featuring a time lapse video intro and various ASMR components with Zoe Kravitz performing. In the ad, Kravitz uses ASMR techniques including whispering and tapping on a Pure Gold brand bottle into two microphones.
“The strongest type of tingle…feels like sparkles or little fireworks going off,” she says. “The strongest one would give you the feeling of being exhausted, pleasantly tired, satisfied almost you want to say. Then there are much less strong tingles, and they feel just pleasant. Almost like sand is being poured down your spine. [Or] like when you get the funny elbow, when you hit it and it feels like it just goes off everywhere.”
It’s not really a physical feeling if that makes sense, but there is a powerful reaction to the sounds nonetheless, to the point where I’m instinctively arching my neck, and a feeling does wash over you that is truly unique, almost addictive. What I don’t fully understand is why my mind chose just now to react when I haven’t had anything close to an ASMR experience before. I’d say that I’ve just found the right trigger, but I’m even reacting to videos that did nothing for me in the past. Like something clicked in my head recently.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a nonclinical term coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, who’s been involved in online organizing around ASMR since the late aughts. Allen, who works in cybersecurity, figured people couldn’t discuss the phenomenon unless it had a name—ideally, an official-sounding one, to lend legitimacy to a practice that can be embarrassing to share. Once ASMR had a name—and had been featured in a slew of can-you-believe-this news stories—academics became interested in pinning down what it was.
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".
Crunchy slime combines the popularity of creating slime at home with the popularity of ASMR videos. Videos with crunchy slime involve the formation of the sticky, stretchy slime with the addition of a larger object (generally plastic) that pop or click when combined in the slime. If you’ve ever played with silly putty or blown a bubble with gum, you can get an idea of the satisfaction value of stretching crunchy slime. Every day individuals create the crunchy slime, tape themselves molding and spreading the slime, and post the videos online. You can then go online and watch the videos, and if you experience ASMR, you may enjoy them even more.
She made her first ASMR video in February 2011, filming herself as she leafed through a journal and played with seashells. The video logged just two views in a month, and Maria was so disappointed that she deleted it. A few months later, she tried again; this time, there were a few encouraging comments. She kept at it, and by the end of the year, she had 30,000 subscribers. Nearly three years later, she has more than 300,000.
Plus, it’s logistically difficult to study a phenomenon that requires quiet and prefers solitude. As Smith points out, fMRI machines are noisy and EEG tests (which Smith’s team also tried) involve attaching “goop and sensors” to the scalp, potentially interfering with the ability to feel tingles. As Smith puts it, “the tools we have are not relaxing.”
Sounds like just normal. When you feel it you know it. That jumping around sensation can start just like yours did. Mine starts at the base of my neck traveling up like the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, but more relaxing and very nice. Feel like giggling inside, then shoots up to my scalp and down my arms and waves travel everywhere. Whole thing can be over in a few seconds. Experiencing the trigger over again still produces symptoms but maybe not so much/or in different places. You get to feel kind of drugged. I may not feel it if I listen to a song I love from beginning to end, but will if it’s a snippet of the chorus or lead up to it. A few minutes ago I got triggered from hearing a sample from iTunes of a song I bought recently. That song has a lot of trigger types in it. Sounds like whispers or gentle waves, light tapping beats, breathy singing, violins.
Replies to this post indicated that a significant number of other people had experienced the sensation which "okaywhatever" described - also in response to witnessing mundane events. The interchanges precipitated the formation of a number of web-based locations intended to facilitate further discussion and analysis of the phenomenon for which there were plentiful anecdotal accounts, yet no consensus-agreed name nor any scientific data or explanation.