If you’ve been on the internet for more than 5 minutes, you’ve probably heard of ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s the weird – but pleasant – sensation some people get from certain trigger sounds or sensations. It’s sparked an entire industry of content, but it’s still a bit of a mystery. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.
It’s been called The Tingles, Whisper Porn, even Brain Orgasms. And much like regular orgasms, some people just can’t have them.It’s been called The Tingles, Whisper Porn, even Brain Orgasms. And much like regular orgasms, some people just can’t have them.
So I’ve been told. By some girlfriends.
It’s called ASMR, and if you haven’t heard of it, well, welcome to the internet.
It’s a sensation that people have probably felt for thousands of years, but it was only after the internet came along that millions of people looked at each other and said, “Oh, you too?”
ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” and it was coined by a woman named named Jennifer Allen in 2010.
She was part of a Reddit thread that was trying to get to the bottom of the phenomenon. And it kinda stuck. It was a clinical-sounding name designed to make it easier to talk about but also make it sound more legitimate to researchers. Not to mention negate associations with sexual fetishism. Because it’s not a sexual thing, even though they call it “whisper porn” and “brain orgasms,” and… every search result you get.
Dr. Craig Richard, from Shenandoah University in Virginia is an ASMR expert and created an online resource called ASMR University.
He’s also the author of the book Brain Tingles where he describes ASMR as:
“… a deeply relaxing feeling often accompanied by light and pleasurable brain tingles. It’s often stimulated during moments of positive, personal attention from a kind or caring person whispering, speaking, acting, and moving in a gentle way. It may be likely that about 10-20% of the global population is able to experience ASMR.”
Up until 2010, ASMR was sometimes called “The Unnamed Feeling,” “Weird Head Sensation,” and “Attention Induced Euphoria.”
It was also called “(head)tingle(s),” “head orgasm, and “braingasm.”
A person going by the screen name WhisperingLife uploaded the first, intentional ASMR video to YouTube in 2009.
It’s called “Whisper 1 — hello,” and it consists of a black screen and a lo-fi, whispered recording of her talking about making a YouTube channel specifically for whispering.
Since then, ASMR content has exploded online. When researching this video, a Google search brought up 244 million videos.
So you’re watching the 244 million and first video ever uploaded about ASMR.
It’s even making its way into mainstream commercials.
Hershey’s Chocolate Co. released an almost 90-minute online video titled “Reese The Movie: An ASMR Experience” in 2019.
The company brought together five popular ASMR creators to sit at a round table in an orange room and take turns whispering about the candy, along with crinkling its wrappers and eating the peanut butter cups.
Michelob Ultra ran a commercial during the Super Bowl in 2019 that had Zoe Kravitz whispering into a microphone and tapping her fingernails against a bottle.
So, how does ASMR work? What happens on a physiological level when it’s triggered?
ASMR isn’t experienced by everyone. But for those who do, it usually starts in childhood.
Like you might feel tingles when your head was checked for lice or fingers running through your hair.
Or maybe you felt tingles when someone would trace a finger across your back. (which to me doesn’t sound that strange, doesn’t everybody get a shiver?)
There are also consistencies in ASMR triggers. These include
- Close, personal attention
- Crisp sounds
- Delicate hand movements
- Soft speaking
- Soft touching
A combination of these triggers may induce an ASMR experience.
Studying ASMR presents some challenges.
Like some people have trouble experiencing them in clinical lab situations. For obvious reasons.
Its’ also kinda hard to determine whether people are having “true” ASMR experiences.
Regardless, there’ve been several studies over the last few years that look into the personalities of those who can experience it.
To better understand what happens to the brain, Dr. Richard and co-researchers had 10 participants watch ASMR videos in an fMRI machine for a study in 2018.
The participants’ brains showed significant activation in areas associated with reward and emotional arousal.
Brain activation also showed similarities to patterns observed in musical frisson, also known as music chills because of a chills-down-the-spine sensation.
As Dr. Richard told National Geographic in March 2022:
“[The study] showed that specific areas of the brain are active when someone is experiencing ASMR. Some of these regions highlight the likely involvement of dopamine and oxytocin.”
Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone.” Behaviors that trigger oxytocin release are similar to behaviors that trigger ASMR.
Oxytocin can also stimulate states of relaxation and comfort, which are similar to ASMR feelings.
Another study in 2017 focused on the default mode network (DMN) of the brain.
This gets a little in the weeds but the default mode network is made up of several modules in your brain and it’s kind-of on when you’re not.
Like if you’re focusing on a task, something external, then the network is less active. But if you’re kinda relaxed and looking inward; thinking – being introspective, that’s when it becomes more active.
And in this study, they measured the DMN activity of 11 people who could experience ASMR and 11 people who can’t. And they found that there was less functional connectivity in people who can experience ASMR.
In other words, all those different modules that make up the DMN had weaker connections in the ASMR group. Possibly making it easier for certain sensory stimuli to kinda short it out.
But they also found higher connectivity in certain parts of the brain that manage executive control and visual resting-state networks.
To put all that together into some sexy science speak:
The researchers suggest that it’s possible that “ASMR reflects a reduced ability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences that are suppressed in most individuals.”
In other words, it might be something that we all feel, but for most of us it gets suppressed in the brain.
The researchers made sure to point out this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with people who experience ASMR, it’s not a mental disorder or anything. In fact, it may be actually be helpful as a tool to cope with depression or stress.
Speaking of coping, two studies published in PLOS ONE in 2018 looked into the physiological benefits of the ASMR experience, especially when watching videos.
One of the two studies showed reduced heart rates and increased skin conductance levels and said it could be “a reliable and physiologically-rooted experience that may have therapeutic benefits for mental and physical health.”
The researchers specifically noted in both studies that ASMR is not associated with sexual arousal.
As the researchers wrote:
“This misconception may arise from the often interpersonal and intimate nature of some ASMR videos, but our research indicates that sexual arousal is not a reliable outcome of watching ASMR videos.”
The boobs in the thumbnails are just a bonus I guess.
Then there’s a new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality in April 2022 focused on sensitivity.
The study looked at 500 people and showed that people who experience ASMR scored significantly higher on tests involving external hypersensitivity and body perception.
But as one of the researchers pointed out, this does have a downside. Saying:
“Highly sensitive people may be able to experience intensely pleasurable feelings like ASMR but this high sensitivity also has downsides. For example, the noise of a pen clicking or someone chewing gum could set off a negative reaction, which others would simply ignore.”
There is actually a term for what could be considered the opposite of ASMR, misophonia, where you experience discomfort or disgust at certain sounds.
Another study from February 2022 suggests ASMR experiencers may be more neurotic and have more baseline anxiety than non- experiencers.
This suggests that they may be more prone to experiencing negative emotional states as well as anxiety disorders. The good news is that they suggest the ASMR experience can help mitigate that.
One last study worth mentioning was published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2017 that focused on personality traits.
They studied 290 ASMR experiencers and 290 controls and found that the ASMR group demonstrated higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism and lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness when compared to the controls.
In other words, introverts may be more likely to have them.
“It may be that inward looking people are more likely to experience ASMR symptoms than more sociable, outward looking people. Alternatively, the ASMR symptoms may lead people to be less sociable and more introspective.”
Little bit of a chicken and egg thing there but especially if the hypersensitivity to stimuli thing is true, then yeah, I can imagine those people preferring to be in a more relaxed, quiet setting.
So, what are we to make of all of this? ASMR is non-sexual… (thumbnails) really… some people who experience it may have more anxiety than others, may be more introverted than others, but the experience is a beneficial one for them.
Also, ASMR could be triggering memories from infancy.
In fact, Dr. Richard thinks the quality that is underneath almost all ASMR videos is a “tranquil, womb-like intimacy.”
He believes that sounds like towel folding and whispering are about triggering the experience of being loved.
When his study participants were asked how they most prefer to experience ASMR outside of videos, they ranked receiving light touches with their eyes closed first.
Sound triggers were ranked second, and visual ones below that.
And he points out that interestingly, this is how our senses develop over time.
When you’re born, you receive most of your information about the world through touch. Parents often coddle and stroke their newborns.
So, ASMR could be an experience of reliving your newborn time.
As Dr. Richard told Smithsonian Magazine in 2017:
“The reason people can get tingles and feel relaxed and comforted listening to Maria GentleWhispering is because she’s acting very much the way a parent would care for you, with the caring glances, gentle speech and soothing hand movements.”
This is classic pattern recognition. Our brains recognize the pattern of someone who cares, and that comforts us. And it activates that oxytocin that makes us feel good.
Maybe that’s what it’s all about – feeling loved and cared for. After all the studies, all the theories, all the debates, it’s really just the deep down universal human need to feel loved.
So if you are into ASMR content and someone tries to give you crap for it, you’ve got the perfect comeback.
So, do you experience ASMR? If so, what’s your trigger? Or misophonia? Anything weird you can’t stand to hear?
My little weird thing is when people wear thong sandals and they kinda slap the bottom of their feet as they walk… I don’t know why, I hate it. Just… (react)
But either way, if you do enjoy a good brain tingle, I say go for it. Life is hard, times are tough, self care is important.