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What is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response, sometimes auto sensory meridian response, is a tingling sensation that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. A pleasant form of paresthesia, it has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia and may overlap with frisson

ASMR signifies the subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin". It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attention control. A genre of videos intended to induce ASMR has emerged, over 13 million of which had been published on YouTube by 2018.

What Does ASMR Feel Like?

Individuals describe ASMR as a feel-good, tingling sensation that begins in the scalp. The calming feeling begins as a response to certain sounds or visuals, known as ASMR triggers. As the person keeps listening or watching, the tingling sensation slowly spreads through their body, from the head and shoulders down into the spine, lower back, arms, and legs.

The main sensation of ASMR is one of relaxation or euphoria. It is used as a Sound Therapy session for relaxation and de-stress.

How Does ASMR Work?

ASMR usually begins when individuals watch or listen to videos that contain their audio or visual triggers. As they watch, they’ll begin feeling the tingling sensation in their head, which may spread throughout their body and intensify. The sounds or videos that trigger ASMR vary depending on the individual, but usually fall into one of two categories: personal attention and repetitive tasks.

Personal attention triggers involve role play that ranges from a person simply whispering into a microphone to someone getting their hair brushed.

Task-based triggers may include finger tapping, crinkling paper, stirring food, or folding towels.

The most common ASMR triggers are whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds, and slow or repetitive movements. Around three-quarters of people who engage in ASMR respond to whispering. A commonality among ASMR sounds is their quiet, intimate nature. Sounds of someone painting or drawing are common triggers, whereas airplane or vacuum cleaner noises are not.

ASMR videos can range in length, from 15 minutes to nearly three hours. They’re designed to be long enough to allow the viewer to relax and even fall asleep while watching them.

What’s the Science Behind ASMR?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much. While the term was coined in 2010, researchers are just beginning to study ASMR. Most of the information we have about ASMR is anecdotal, and not everyone experiences ASMR. However, the current research suggests that your ability to experience ASMR may have something to do with wiring in your brain.

One of the first peer-reviewed studies on ASMR, published in 2015, noted an overlap between ASMR and synesthesia, a neurological condition where multiple senses get stimulated at the same time, and in a way that’s atypical for most people. For example, a person with synesthesia may say they “hear color” or “taste sounds.” In the general population, only 2 to 4 percent of people have synesthesia, but 6 percent of people with ASMR also have synesthesia.

In a later study, researchers performed MRI scans on participants to see if this tendency to “blend” sensory experiences may originate in the brain. When comparing individuals who experience ASMR against controls, the researchers found that those with ASMR had increased connectivity in certain regions of their brain, and reduced connectivity in others -- specifically between the frontal lobes and sensory regions in the brain. This reduced connectivity may make it easier for sensory-emotional associations to occur when a person encounters an ASMR trigger.

Individuals with ASMR also score significantly higher on some personality traits like Openness-to-Experience. Higher Openness-to-Experience scores correlate with greater sensitivity to sensory experiences.

How Can ASMR Help Sleep?

While people use ASMR to relax, most people use it specifically to help them fall asleep. Multiple studies have shown that when people with ASMR watch a video, it helps them relax, relieves their stress, and makes it easier for them to fall asleep. The positive impacts of ASMR may aid sleep in several ways.

Pain Relief

Over half of people with insomnia live with chronic pain. Even temporary pain makes it challenging for the body to relax enough to fall asleep. Studies show that when people with ASMR watch videos, they experience pain relief that lasts for several hours.

Individuals with ASMR also experience a feeling of well-being after watching videos. Like the pain relief, these improvements in mood last for several hours afterward -- even if the tingling sensations do not occur.

These improvements in mood tend to be more pronounced among individuals with moderate to severe depression. Individuals with ASMR tend to score higher on the neuroticism personality trait, which can be associated with depression and lower emotional stability.

However, this mood-lifting effect only occurs among individuals capable of experiencing ASMR. ASMR videos do not have the same uplifting effect on those who do not engage in ASMR.

Reduce Stress

Difficulty sleeping is a common symptom of depression, but even everyday stress can interfere with sleep. It elevates your heart rate and makes it harder to relax and fall asleep.

Fortunately, watching an ASMR video can significantly lower the heart rate of people who experience ASMR. This reduction in heart rate may mimic the relaxation that naturally occurs as one falls asleep, while also lowering one’s stress levels.

How Do You Know if You Can Experience ASMR?

Most people recognize they can experience ASMR in childhood before age 10, although onset can occur in adulthood. While ASMR videos are very popular, the overall prevalence of ASMR is not yet known.

If you’re unsure if you have ASMR, try searching for “asmr” on YouTube. Several ASMR YouTubers (known as ASMRtists) have subscriber counts over 100,000, with videos that have millions of views. If you find a trigger that works for you, you can search for ASMR videos with that sound or visual, or keep exploring.

To enhance the ASMR experience, try listening in a quiet, relaxed place like your bedroom. Binaural headphones can also enhance the sound of ASMR.


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