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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.
ASMR can vary from person to person because it’s all about perception, licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells SELF. “We all perceive experience in a different way even though it is the same experience,” he explains. For example, while one person may find the sound of someone typing comforting (if, say, they had a parent who worked on a computer at home), others may associate the sound with office work and become more stressed when they hear it.
He posted earlier this year on the ASMR subreddit, calling for volunteers, and completed the study in May. First, he looked at how ASMR videos affected "normal people"—18 Dartmouth undergrads. "In the second study we selected only people we knew could reliably experience and report ASMR," he says. "For this we used 10 subjects, most of whom were people from the subreddit who could commute to Hanover, New Hampshire. In this second study we asked the participants to bring in videos that they knew would trigger their ASMR. They then watched the videos in an MRI, while indicating periods of ASMR with a button press."
Given that ASMR is open to misunderstanding and misconceptions, a healthy dose of scepticism is important for future research in the area. Anecdotally, the Sheffield group point out that some ASMR enthusiasts use the videos therapeutically, to help with symptoms of insomnia, anxiety or depression. This is echoed in the findings from Barratt and Davis’s survey; their data showed that, for people who scored as having moderate to severe depression, 69% reported using ASMR videos to help ease their symptoms, and generally reported a greater improvement in mood than individuals who were not depressed. But these are self-report measures, and further work needs to be done to pinpoint to what extent there may be an actual therapeutic effect.
“One of our main aims is to try to draw attention to ASMR as a topic worthy (and capable) of scientific research, in the hope that it might galvanise future research efforts,” they explain. Of the group, three of them (Emma, Giulia and Tom) experience ASMR, whereas Theresa doesn’t. The study is still in an early stage – data collection has just finished – but this diversity in experience, they believe, is a critical component to their research. “So we starting thinking about how we might first and foremost investigate this phenomenon at the most basic level: what might it take to convince someone who doesn’t experience ASMR that it is a genuine and consistent experience for some people?” they explain. “Theresa doesn’t experience ASMR, and has valuable scepticism of the experience. It adds to the diversity of our research group and the questioning of our approach from a non-ASMR perspective,” they add.
Even so, because she’s a woman who puts her face on the Internet, Maria does get some unsavory comments sometimes. But she also gets thankful, heartfelt messages from people who’ve found some comfort in her videos. She told me she keeps a folder called “Gratitude” on her computer filled with these messages, that she reads before she makes her videos.
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.