As awareness of the ASMR phenomenon has gone more mainstream in recent years thanks to the internet, videos and entire channels dedicated to ASMR began to appear on YouTube, which is how I discovered the experience I had with my uncle had a name. It’s through these videos that both people who have had ASMR episodes in the past and tinglehead wannabes hope to replicate the experience.
Have you ever had a pleasing reaction to something but were unable to articulate how it makes you feel because it makes absolutely no sense? For example, I love the smell of freshly opened tennis balls. I am fully aware that the smell shouldn’t be great, it’s hardly enticing on paper. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s a musky, muddy, petroleum, rubbery odor. Sounds great, huh? Interestingly, there is a fraction of the population who, like me, loves this smell.
If YouTube videos are any indication, the most popular ASMR stimuli are whispering, tapping, watching someone have their hair brushed, and repetitive tasks like folding laundry. However, people can also experience ASMR from a bevvy of events like getting their hair cut or listening to music—there are a wide range of triggers and what works for one person may not work for you. ASMR slime videos may fit the bill—or not.
Even if the Internet has led researchers to the discovery of a previously unknown sensory phenomenon, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. There are many unanswered questions, like why only certain people experience ASMR, what percentage of the population they make up, and whether those who never have can be triggered to experience it. More immediately, there’s the ever-present challenge of getting funding to better understand an experience that still raises skepticism. Smith says that the term ASMR still “comes across as a little bit new-agey in the scientific world.”
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.”
Richard suggests that the “extreme relaxation” of ASMR may be the mirror image of panic attacks, residing at the far end of the relaxation spectrum. If, as his data so far shows, three-quarters of his subjects use ASMR videos to help them sleep, a third say the videos help them “feel less sad,” and smaller percentages use the videos to deal with diagnosed anxiety disorders and depression, ASMR could one day have therapeutic applications, he argues.
This image from video provided by Michelob shows a frame from their 2019 Super Bowl commercial for Michelob Ultra Pure Gold. The ad features the actress Zoe Kravitz using techniques for autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. It is described as a tingly euphoric response, usually starting on the head and scalp, and sometimes spreading down the neck, arms or back. (Michelob ULTRA via AP)
For outsiders, ASMR has always been weird. “One thing that’s interesting about the ASMR experience is that it’s about close personal attention,” says Giulia Poerio, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield who has undertaken multiple ASMR studies. Role-play videos thrive in the ASMR community – online, you can watch someone pretend to be your dentist, masseuse, or even a receptionist checking you into a hotel. “They’re basically a simulation of what would happen if you got ASMR in real life,” Poerio explains. “Multiple triggers are layered to get an effect.”
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.
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.
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.
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.