What Is ASMR and Why Are People Watching These Videos?
ASMR videos are very popular and may help some people with insomnia.
By John Cline Ph.D.
On the recommendation of a colleague, I put the letters “ASMR” into the search bar for YouTube. Many videos came up, some with a great number of views. One had over 15 million. I clicked on the first video and saw something like this:
A young woman is sitting behind an old-style microphone, which she taps lightly several times, resulting in a sound of testing a microphone to see if it's working. She picks up a brush and starts brushing her hair and in a barely audible voice, while moving toward and then away from the mike, and then back and forth from the left to the right side, says:
“Hello. (Very quiet and breathy.) Are you ready to relax and gently prepare for sleep? Some slow and easy brush sounds may help you relax. As you relax, I will be caring for you. Nothing to do but listen and relax. Now I’m going to sense your aura so I can better serve you. I hope that you will feel better and, if you like, I will make you feel more comfortable. We live in both pain and pleasure and life is some of both. You need never be alone Now let me get some information about you as we continue.”
Throughout this, she brushed her hair and then began writing with pencil and paper close to the mike so that the scratching sound of the pencil on the paper was clearly heard as she continued to ask questions and write answers.
“Do you want to get more information about how to relax and sleep better? Your email address is? (She began to tap the microphone so that an almost heartbeat-like sound came through my headphones). OK, good then. Now for a trigger. (She picked up a small purse and began to scratch its surface. Then she opened and closed the zipper several times while also tapping the surface of the purse.) Great. Now another trigger. (She took a sheet of paper and brought it close to the microphone while gently rattling it.) Do you like this sound? (She slowly tears the paper. Then she picked up the brush and held it close to the microphone and started scraping it slowly over the surface of the purse). Soooooo relaxing. So gentle. Do you want to sleep now? (Switching the sound of her voice back and forth from the left side to the right side.) Let me give you a bit of a massage. On the scalp. Relaxing. Now I will use the brush. Some tingling feelings.”
This continued for another 20 minutes. I clicked on another video. This one was posted only two weeks ago and already had 2 million views. It was similar to what was described above. It was about 25 minutes in length.
After a few more videos, I was not sure exactly what I had experienced. Was I relaxed or somewhat put off? Did I feel sleepy? Or tenser? In many ways these video presentations seemed like standard guided relaxation, meditation, or hypnosis inductions but also emphasized such ideas as taking care of the viewer (without being physically able to do anything for the viewer), sometimes inquiring about the viewer’s personal background (obviously with no answer expected—these are videos and are not interactive), and the viewer experiencing sensations described as “tingling” (which it seemed to assume).
I was first made aware of ASMR by a colleague, who knew of my interest in the use of behavioral techniques to improve sleep. The videos, which began appearing frequently in about 2010, continue to get millions of views today. There are now live streaming channels where you can view hours of ASMR sounds in real time. Some YouTube videos incorporate ASMR type patter, often as a parody of the actual ASMR videos. People have even started identifying unintentional examples of it in media such as in movies.
Articles in the popular press like the New Yorker have described ASMR. Entrepreneurs are trying to move the experience into the physical world by offering live sessions with pre-session questionnaires to determine what stimuli are most effective for the client. Whole websites are dedicated to providing information about ASMR and gathering survey data about people’s experiences with it. A video introduction to ASMR recently done by the New Yorker gives a good sense of the sounds and visuals.
Until recently, there was a lack of empirically based information to warrant recommending ASMR as a technique to help patients with insomnia. But new studies are bringing it into the realm of science and possibly practice (Lloyd, Ashdown, & Jawad, 2017).
I have long been interested in the psychological effects of sound. Hearing stirring or relaxing music can have an immediate and powerful effect on one’s emotional state.
The term ASMR was coined by Jennifer Allen, a nonscientist looking to create an official sounding name for a sensory phenomenon. The letters stand for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it “describes the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, tapping, and hand movements” (Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri, 2018). The Wikipedia entry on ASMR defines it as a "…term used for an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine.” The entry gives quite a lot of information about its history and background. Fredborg, Clark, & Smith (2017) describe it as “a perceptual condition in which the presence of particular audio-visual stimuli triggers intense, pleasurable tingling sensations in the head and neck regions, which may spread to the periphery of the body”. Barratt & Davis (2015), in one of the first studies to begin a scientific investigation of ASMR define it as “a … sensory phenomenon, in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck, and at times further areas in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli. This sensation is widely reported to be accompanied by feelings of relaxation and well-being.”
Self-selected viewers turn to the videos for relaxation and relief from depression, insomnia, and chronic pain. Many others are bored or turned off by them. Several of the video makers have apparently gathered large enough followings that they can support themselves by making and providing this content. These videos, like the cognitive behavioral techniques such as guided relaxation and meditation, may accomplish the same thing by distracting the viewer from worrisome thoughts and by providing a comforting and familiar set of sounds that may remind people of the way they were cared for as children. Or they might offer the feeling of being directly cared for even though the individual viewer is perhaps one of hundreds or thousands of people watching. As more studies are done we may be able to get a better idea of what is going on.
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From an online questionnaire, Barratt & Davis (2015) found that men and women were using ASMR videos for relaxation (98 percent), insomnia (82 percent), and stress (82 percent). They found that the most frequently used triggers were whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds like tapping fingers, slow movements, and repetitive movements. Not surprisingly, loud and jarring sounds, like airplane engines, vacuum cleaner noise, and laughing, were not associated with ASMR. ASMR itself was described as “a tingling sensation that originated typically towards the back of the scalp and progressed down the line of the spine and, in some cases, out towards the shoulders. Many participants also felt that their lower back, arms, and legs experienced the sensation, though the amount of area the tingles covered seemed to be determined by the extent to which individuals had been triggered."
Not all viewers responded to the same triggers, and viewers experienced different levels of responses to each trigger. Interestingly, respondents reported finding that medications such as tranquilizers blunted the experience. Respondents who reported being depressed reported frequently feeling better when watching ASMR videos. While not statistically significant, they did note a possible link between the experience of ASMR and emotional synesthesia during which individuals experience emotional states that are not obviously linked to the, say, tactile stimulation that triggers it. (For more on the possible connection between synesthesia and ASMR see the post by Maureen Seaberg.)
Fredborg, Clark, & Smith (2017) looked at the personality characteristics of people who experience ASMR. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that people with ASMR had significantly higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism and lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness as compared with the controls. In addition to this, there was a positive correlation between a set of common ASMR triggers (e.g. whispering, tapping sounds, scratching sounds, etc.) and the Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism dimensions of the personality questionnaire. The higher scores on the Openness-to-Experience scale would indicate that people who experience ASMR have greater sensitivity and receptivity to sensations. The higher scores on Neuroticism may be accounted for by a greater degree of depression among the members of the ASMR sample and would be associated with lower levels of emotional stability. They suggested that, based on these results, ASMR is associated with specific personality traits. This may help explain why some people experience it more profoundly than others.
In a set of studies conducted by Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri, (2018) it was found that watching ASMR videos increased positive emotional states only in people who experience ASMR. They also found that ASMR was reliably associated with physiological markers including reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance. They found that people who experienced ASMR specifically had responses such as tingling and increased calmness only to the ASMR videos and not to control videos. The ASMR responders showed significantly decreased heart rate and significantly increased skin conductance in response to the ASMR videos as compared to non-ASMR videos.
Decreased physiological activation could explain some of the complexity of the experience in which there is relaxation (decreased tension) along with the sensation of excitement (the tingles). Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri, (2018) suggest that these results were consistent with the anecdotal reports of people with ASMR and indicate that it is a real sensory experience and may be a method of emotional regulation that could potentially have therapeutic value.
A study conducted by Smith, Fredborg, & Kornelsen (2017) looked at the default mode network (DMN) in 11 people who experience ASMR and 11 who do not. The DMN is closely associated with daydreaming and mind wandering. It becomes deactivated when the brain is mentally engaged in some task-oriented activity. It includes a number of brain regions including the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate gyrus. Functional MRI studies showed that the functional connectivity of the components of the DMN of ASMR individuals was significantly less than that of the controls in some areas and greater in some others. The reduced connectivity may be associated with decreased attentional control and ASMR may involve a reduced inhibition of sensory-emotional experiences that would be suppressed in most individuals. This could have implications for the synesthesia-like experience of an emotional response to an otherwise neutral auditory or visual stimulus.
In summary, ASMR may have some application in the treatment of insomnia for some people, and research will be needed to see if, and for whom, it is actually effective. In the meantime, some people really enjoy these videos and find them helpful.