What caught their attention was the brain’s “default mode network,” which Smith describes as “a lot of structures along the midline of the brain,” as well as parts of the parietal lobes above the backs of the ears. “The activity of these areas tend to fluctuate together, so we assume that they work together as a network,” Smith says. The default mode network is “most apparent” when a subject is awake and at rest, and is often associated with internal thoughts and mind wandering. In a scanner, the default mode network typically shows up as certain areas of the brain “lighting up” at the same time. But the brains of subjects who experienced ASMR looked different.
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.
But the video doesn’t work on me the way it’s supposed to. For many of her fans, Maria’s voice causes a sensation the Internet has dubbed ASMR—autonomous sensory meridian response. Those who get ASMR describe the experience as a tingling inside their heads, or a head rush. Sometimes the sensation extends down their backs or limbs. It’s often referred to as a brain-gasm, but counterintuitively, it’s also supposed to be relaxing, a mellow feeling. Some people watch the videos to help them sleep at night. And even without the tingles, it is sort of relaxing, if you can get past the dissonance of someone whispering in your ear while you scroll through Twitter in your cubicle, or whatever.
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.”
But the phenomenon has nonetheless burst into the mainstream, thanks to mounting media coverage and a few high-profile references: “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon gushed to Conan O’Brien about her “head orgasms,” induced by the methodical touch of airport security pat-downs; novelist Andrea Seigel shared her experience with ASMR on the radio program “This American Life” last year; the “Dr. Oz” show has featured ASMR videos as a way to ease insomnia.
On 12 March 2012, Steven Novella, Director of General Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine, published a post about ASMR on his blog Neurologica. Regarding the question of whether ASMR is a real phenomeonon, Novella said "in this case, I don't think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is. There are a number of people who seem to have independently experienced and described" it with "fairly specific details. In this way it's similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history." Novella tentatively posited the possibilities that ASMR might be either a type of pleasurable seizure, or another way to activate the "pleasure response". However, Novella drew attention to the lack of scientific investigation into ASMR, suggesting that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation technologies should be used to study the brains of people who experience ASMR in comparison to people who do not, as a way of beginning to seek scientific understanding and explanation of the phenomenon.
“I don’t think enough is done,” Fleck says. “This little girl was wearing sweatshirts with her school’s name on them, you have the danger of being doxxed, people finding out where you are.” Thankfully, Fleck feels the ASMR community look out for each other. “It’s just a little difficult because other than reaching out to get YouTube to do something, we’re kind of powerless.”
In August 2014, Craig Richard, Jennifer Allen, and Karissa Burnett published a survey at SurveyMonkey that was reviewed by Shenandoah University Institutional Review Board, and the Fuller Theological Seminary School of Psychology Human Studies Review Committee. In September 2015, when the survey had received 13,000 responses, the publishers announced that they were analyzing the data with the intent to publish the results. Currently they have had over 25,000 responses, data analysis is in progress but the survey remains open and active for continued data collection. No such publication or report is yet available.
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.
In the limited, small studies that have been done investigating ASMR, there do appear to be brain abnormalities in people who experience ASMR, though this is far from confirmed. But some studies did find that people who experience the phenomenon appear to have brains that are wired differently when it comes to the areas that react to sensory perception. Instead of two sensory areas having a clear connection in their brain, a tinglehead’s sensory areas of the brain appear to blend together to some degree. Some neurologists who have studied the phenomena even think ASMR could be related to the bizarre condition of synesthesia, where a person can hear smells or see music.