ASMR has garnered a lot of attention recently due to its ‘discovery’ by the general public. Nevertheless, the concept is shrouded in mystery and few people know anything definitive about it. It’s one of those terms that’s dropped into casual conversation, mostly because it sounds cool rather than because we’re experts on the subject. In fact, there are no real experts on it. The phenomenon is so new that scientists haven’t been able to figure out whether it exists or not yet. All we have to go on are self-reported benefits and thousands of popular YouTube videos. So what is ASMR? What can a largely unproven subjective experience possibly do to improve our mental health?
What is ASMR?
ASMR stands for ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’, and was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010. It describes a tingling sensation in the spine and the back of the head, that occurs in reaction to a specific visual or auditory stimulus: aka. the ‘brain orgasm’. After experiencing this feeling recurrently for almost a decade, seemingly on her own, Allen stumbled upon an online discussion board full of likeminded individuals. She subsequently created the term, and a corresponding Facebook group, to convey legitimacy on an idea that was developed by a previously insignificant internet thread. Clearly, it worked because ASMR was an overnight sensation (bad pun aside). Thousands of people rushed to declare that they identified with Allen’s discovery: namely, by posting videos of ‘triggers’ that produced the said effect in them. Today, ASMR is mostly seen in videos incorporating these triggers.
Where can I find ASMR?
ASMR is either ‘intentional’ or ‘unintentional’. Intentional ASMR is the phenomenon as we know it. The tingling feeling is purposely engendered by a carefully curated trigger. It is most commonly found on YouTube with thousands of accounts solely dedicated to making videos which feature ASMR. Conversely, unintentional ASMR appears by accident in random events in daily life are the triggers. You can experience unintentional ASMR anywhere, but its defining factor is that it’s unexpected. For example, you can find it in the sound of rustling tree leaves or a cat purring sweetly. The plus side of unintentional ASMR is that it happens naturally; it’s more ‘legitimate’ than its ‘intentional’ counterpart. Immune to the placebo effect, the tingling sensation doesn’t just turn up because we want it to. A fun activity: take the time to consider whether you’ve experienced unintentional ASMR on one of your lockdown 2.0 walks!
Intentional ASMR is most often delivered via video, audio track, or in person. The easiest place to find ASMR videos is on YouTube. Content creators are constantly inventing new ways to trigger the feeling in us. Some of the most popular ASMRtists (this is what practitioners of ASMR are called), like Gentle Whispering ASMR and SAS-ASMR, have hundreds of thousands of views on the site. Furthermore, even though it’s firmly in the development stage, live in-person intentional ASMR is thriving all over the world. For example, Whisperlodge is an ‘intimately-sized immersive theatre performance’ and ‘sensory journey through live ASMR’ that travelled across the USA pre-pandemic. ASMR has also established itself in the art world: ‘Weird Sensation Feels Good: An exhibition about ASMR’ ran from April 8th- November 1st at ArkDes in Sweden. The museum invited its visitors to ‘the first exhibition of its kind to lift ASMR out from your screen and into public space’. Exhibitions like this are propelling ASMR out of cyberspace and into the public consciousness. Take note that some beauty salons are now advertising personalised ASMR massages where you can customise the triggers. Ultimately, ASMR’s growing popularity means that it’s only going to be more widely available in the long-term.
What are some examples of ASMR triggers?
Mouth Sounds: Whispering, chewing. eating, humming, blowing, kissing,
Noises: Tapping, sticky fingers, scratching, squishing, page-turning, crinkling, typing, writing, buzzing, leather, latex, fabric sounds, spray painting, soda fizzing.
Visuals: concentration (watching someone concentrate), personal attention, eye-contact, hair play, light-patterns, role-plays, strokes, paint mixing, massage.
Essentially, anything that’s maddeningly visceral.
How can ASMR help me to improve my mental health?
According to an article in The Independent, as of this year, ‘there have been three brain imaging studies on ASMR’. One showed ‘that ASMR can make those experiencing it feel closer to other people’. The other two concluded that ‘ASMR could happen because of a reduced ability to suppress emotional responses that we derive from our senses’, but that ‘being able to inhibit connections between our inner and outer worlds can mean more intense positive experiences’. Basically, ASMR amplifies sensations, including closeness and positivity, which is uplifting. At least according to the limited scientific research on the subject.
This means that you can view ASMR as an alternative to meditation. Like meditation, ASMR shifts mindsets in the right direction. The Euphoria that it engenders is an undeniable mood enhancer. Calm, the guided meditation app, now has a category dedicated to ASMR in its ‘sleep stories’ section, which is a great place to start if you’re a subscriber.
ASMR helps people to relax and the tingling feeling is euphoric in the same way that sex is. Don’t make a common mistake and assume that ASMR is a fetish though! ASMR and sex have similar effects, and they overlap sometimes, but they’re not the same thing. Sex exposes us to attractive things, and so does ASMR. However, that doesn’t mean that ASMR is attractive because it leads to sexual gratification.
Admittedly, I haven’t been able to experience ASMR and a lot of people never do. Over the summer, a friend of mine told me that his dad and sister always responded to it but he never did. Ultimately, I got the impression that he didn’t think there was much truth to it. The discussion sent my curiosity into overdrive: Is ASMR legit or not? Arguably, it doesn’t matter. If some people report benefits, then maybe you will too. If there’s a slim chance that it boosts mental health, then why not try it out yourself? Hopefully, this article will help you to get started on your ASMR journey. Who knows, you might be one of the chosen few after all.