What Exactly Is ASMR?

Before there were unboxing and haul videos on YouTube, there was another genre of aimless-seeming videos that captivated audiences on the Internet: ASMR. To the uninitiated, ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and it's often defined as "a flow-like mental state" that's triggered by a very specific sound or visual, according to ASMR University.
"ASMR is a deeply relaxing and comforting feeling, usually accompanied by tingling sensations in the head," says Craig Richard, PhD, an ASMR researcher and founder of ASMR University. The"tingling" starts in the back of your neck, travels across your scalp, and moves downward, following the line of your spine, he says. Some people feel it in their shoulders, limbs, and lower back, too. You can experience ASMR getting a haircut, being treated by a doctor, watching someone paint skilfully, hearing someone whisper, or listening to crinkling sounds — the triggers are endless and vary from person to person, he says.
ASMR can be felt even if you aren't actively seeking it out; it's why Bob Ross painting or hands rapidly cooking a dish can feel so relaxing to watch, for example. "If someone experiences ASMR while watching a video, then that person can refer to it as an 'ASMR video' for them," Dr. Richard says. "Many videos are labeled as ASMR videos because they contain popular ASMR triggers, but not everyone has the same triggers."
In addition to the visceral reaction, people say ASMR makes them feel happy, peaceful, relaxed, comfortable, sleepy, and even euphoric. One study found that people experiencing ASMR use it to relieve chronic pain, although those findings were just self-reported. About 80% of ASMR fans watch the videos at night time to prepare to go to bed, according to the same survey. So how do you tap into this magical stress-reliever? Allow Dr. Richard to explain...
What's happening in your brain?
It's kind of unclear, because there hasn't been a ton of research on ASMR. What we do know is that the feelings of calmness and relaxation are likely due to the release of endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters in the brain, Dr. Richard says. "In infancy, it's a parent's touch and voice that are most effective at comforting a stressed infant, and it's likely that these pathways of being comforted are still important in those experiencing ASMR," he says.
Most ASMR triggers involve someone caring for the viewer (like a role-playing "doctor" talking to a "patient" or even getting your hair blown out IRL), and Dr. Richard explains that ASMR may be using the same biological pathways important for being comforted and relaxed when we're stressed.
What triggers ASMR?
Anything repetitive, methodical, and non-threatening can trigger ASMR, Dr. Richard says. Some data suggests that touch (massage, hair touching, and physical examination) and sound (monotone whispering, scratching, and tapping) are the strongest triggers of ASMR, because those are the ones most present in infancy. But that's just a theory, he says.
What are the videos like?
The content of ASMR videos might seem really random, like a person scratching a piece of paper, whispering slowly, or making chewing noises, but you can usually categorise the videos into a few over-arching themes: repetitive actions, role play, and empathy. "We are hardwired to be relaxed and soothed by people who can provide care to us, like parents, friends, partners and clinicians," Dr. Richard says. This pathway seems to be additionally sensitive and responsive to ASMR triggers, like whispering, he says.
A survey found that the most common triggers for ASMR are whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds, slow movements, repetitive movements, and smiling. ASMR researchers say the most effective videos involve the viewer being cared for in some manner, like being groomed in some way or examined by a doctor. Other ones are less driven by the characters, and show someone paying attention to an object, like cooking or just tapping it on a surface.
Is ASMR kind of sexual?
Watching an ASMR video can make you feel a little weird (or tingly), or like you're fetishising an object, but that's usually not the point of ASMR, Dr. Richard says. There is a subset of ASMR videos called "erotica ASMR," which include sexual imagery and behaviours combined with ASMR triggering behaviours and sounds, he says. "These videos induce a sexual response, but it's mostly due to the sexual stimuli, not the ASMR triggers," he says. Only about 10% of people report feeling aroused by ASMR, so any feelings of arousal might be due to the intense relaxation and personal attention. "People who experience ASMR have a clear understanding of who genuinely cares f or them, and they also have the bonus of getting similar deep feelings of relaxation from other stimuli," he says.
Can you teach yourself to feel it?
It's unclear whether or not you can teach yourself to feel ASMR, Dr. Richard says. He estimates that only about 20% of people can experience ASMR. "Some people who experience ASMR refer to it as their special ability, and view it as a superhero trait," he says. What is clear is that certain conditions make it easier to feel, like being in a relaxing and safe environment, such as a dimly lit room at home. "Lying down and clearing your mind can optimise your ability to experience ASMR," he says. ASMR triggers are like different foods, and you have to find something that suits you.
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