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What Is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published March 16, 2022

by Florence Yeung

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is sensory phenomenon which is used to describe pleasurable tingling sensations on the scalp and neck in response to particular auditory and/or visual ‘triggers.’

The tingling sensation often begins in the head, shoulders, or spine, but can spread to other areas of the body to create a euphoric sense of relaxation. ASMR has become increasingly popular on the website YouTube where there are countless ASMR videos with specific auditory and visual triggers.

People often report feeling very calm and sleepy after watching or listening to ASMR videos and will use these to help them get to sleep or reduce anxious feelings. 

Presently, there is not enough research on ASMR to estimate what percentage of the population experience this sensation, but it is thought that not everyone can experience it.

A lot of people who have ASMR often notice that they experienced this in childhood, but many may not realise they can experience ASMR until adulthood. 

The term ASMR is relatively new, and a few terms were previously used to describe this sensation such as ‘brain tingles’ or ‘brain orgasms.’

There is often a misconception that ASMR is arousing or sexual due to the close-up and personal nature of many ASMR videos. However, many people who engage in ASMR videos reject that it is sexual and explain that ASMR is simply a way to relax.

It wasn’t until 2010 when a woman named Jennifer Allen coined the term ‘ASMR’ when she started a group on social media to find people like her who felt these sensations.

She hoped that giving a proper term to the feeling would make the experience more credible in the eyes of researchers and sceptics. 

How does it work?

Many people may experience ASMR in their everyday life such as when they get their hair played with, brushed or cut or when they are watching someone concentrate on a task such as writing or folding towels.

People may want to re-experience the ASMR triggers they enjoy by searching for videos of a similar nature online. For instance, someone who experienced ASMR during a hair appointment can find many videos of ASMRtists (the name given to people who film and upload ASMR videos) completing a virtual hair appointment roleplaying video. 

A common theme for ASMR videos is their quiet, intimate nature, so someone whispering whilst drawing would be a trigger whereas a vacuum cleaner or airplane noises wouldn’t be.

Everyone has different triggers, but often the videos fall into one of two categories- personal attention and task-based triggers. 

Some examples of the types of ASMR videos include:

  • Whispering or speaking softly

  • Brushing sounds

  • Makeup application

  • Crisp sounds such as crinkling paper

  • Water sounds

  • Slow hand movements

  • Tapping noises e.g., on wood or plastic

  • Massaging 

  • Roleplay e.g., a medical examination or checking into a hotel

  • Watching someone concentrate on a task

Several common triggers used to achieve ASMR were found to be whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds, and slow moments (Barratt & Davis, 2015). 

Some ASMR videos can be short whereas some can be hours long. Often the videos are long enough to allow the viewer to fully relax or fall asleep.

Some videos may focus solely on visual triggers whilst others focus solely on auditory triggers, and some may include both visual and auditory triggers.

A very popular trigger for most people is hearing someone whispering. Whispering is a common theme in a large majority of ASMR videos in comparison to someone taking at their normal volume. However, there are also videos which specify that there is no talking. 

In ASMR videos, attention is paid to sound quality, with many ASMRtists using microphone placed close to the trigger so it can pick up all the sounds.

Using headphones whilst watching ASMR videos is usually recommended to get the full effect of all the sounds and for a better chance of experiencing ASMR.

People who engage in ASMR videos usually prefer watching them in a quiet, relaxed environment such as their bedroom so they can by lay down and fall asleep. 

Usually, if there is a trigger that someone has, they will be able to find a video related to that.

If someone is unsure what their triggers are, there are many different types of ASMR videos that can be explored until someone finds a trigger they like. 

Studies on ASMR

Is ASMR linked to synaesthesia?

One of the first studies on ASMR comes from Barratt and Davis (2015) who attempted to understand the mechanism of ASMR by its similarities to another phenomenon called synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a condition where multiple senses are stimulated at the same time, which are not normally connected. For instance, people with synaesthesia explain that they can hear colours, taste sounds, or attribute colours to numbers and letters. 

In their study, the researchers found that 5.9% of their sample of people who claim to experience ASMR also experienced synaesthesia. This is relatively high considering that the prevalence of synaesthesia in the general population is only 4.4%.

The researchers suggested that this could mean there is a relationship between these two phenomena. They theorise that the positive emotional response of calm said to be triggered by ASMR consumption could be considered as a form of sound-emotion synaesthesia. 

However, ASMR and synaesthesia differ in that the secondary sensory experience associated with synaesthesia are automatic and uncontrollable whereas ASMR experiences are autonomous but can be stopped by intentionally disengaging from the triggering stimulus.

So, whilst, there may be some association between these two experiences, they function in different ways so more research is needed to see whether there is a link between the two. 

Is ASMR linked to personality traits?

Studies investigating ASMR have tried to see whether this phenomenon is associated with personality traits. ASMR experiencers have been found to score higher on Openness to Experience and lower on Conscientiousness traits on the Big Five Personality Inventory (Fredborg, Clark, & Smith, 2017; McErlean & Banissy, 2017).

Openness to Experience is associated with curiosity, aesthetic tendencies, wide interests, fantasy, and proneness to vivid daydreams. 

Those who experience ASMR were also found to have higher Neuroticism scores and lower levels of Extraversion and Agreeableness compared to those who do not experience ASMR.

When participants completed the Inter-Personal Reactivity Index (IRI), those who experience ASMR showed greater scores on Empathetic Concern and Fantasizing (McErlean & Banissy, 2017). 

These results suggest there could be a relationship between personality traits and whether someone experiences ASMR.

A possible explanation for higher Neuroticism levels may be because many people with depression or anxiety (who frequently score highly on Neuroticism) tend to use ASMR videos to help their mood and to calm themselves down.

Therefore, it may not be that highly neurotic individuals are more likely to experience ASMR, but that a lot of neurotic individuals are aware that they experience ASMR as they use the ASMR videos to help with anxious or depressed feelings they may have.  

Brain connectivity 

In one of the only current brain imaging studies of those with ASMR, the default mode network (DMN) of 11 individuals with ASMR was compared to 11 people who do not experience ASMR (Smith, Fredborg, & Kornelson, 2017).

The DMN is a group of brain regions that seem to show lower levels of activity when engaged in a particular task like paying attention, but with higher levels of activity when awake and not involved in any specific mental exercise. The DMN is essentially a resting state network in the brain.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the result indicated that the DMN of those with ASMR showed significantly less functional connectivity than that of the control group.

The reduced connectivity may make it easier for sensory-emotional associations to occur when a person encounters an ASMR trigger. The DMN of those with ASMR also demonstrated increased connectivity between brain regions in the occipital, frontal, and temporal cortices, suggesting that ASMR was associated with a blending of multiple resting state networks. 

This study showed the differences between the brains of those who do and do not experience ASMR. The atypical functional connectivity in those who experience ASMR was concluded to likely influence the unique sensory-emotional experiences associated with ASMR. 

Brain regions

The first known study to measure activation of brain regions during ASMR was completed by Lochte et al., (2018). The researchers used fMRI on those who have ASMR and found activation in several areas of the brain.

They found that brain regions associated with reward, the nucleus accumbens, was activated during ASMR. 

The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was also observed to be activated during ASMR. This brain region is associated with self-awareness, social cognition, and social behaviours including grooming.

Although the participants were watching recorded videos, these results may indicate that ASMR videos activate the brain is a similar way to actual social engagement. 

The network of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), supplementary motor area (SMA), and the insula and inferior frontal gyrus (Insula/IFG) were also activated during ASMR.

These are areas which are considered to be involved in emotional arousal and empathy. Activation of these regions during ASMR provides support for the association of ASMR with social cognition and caring feelings towards others. 

The benefits of ASMR

Sleep

A lot of people who watch ASMR videos specifically use them to help them fall asleep. A study found that around 41% of people watch ASMR to help them sleep (McErlean & Banissy, 2017).

Since ASMR causes intense relaxing feelings and helps to calm people down, this could help people who struggle to sleep or who have insomnia.

Pain relief

Many people with insomnia also live with chronic pain which can make it difficult to fall asleep. In a study, it was found that individuals with choric pain reported that ASMR improved their symptoms, seeing a significant reduction in their discomfort for several hours following an ASMR session (Barratt & Davis, 2015). 

Improved mood

In a study, it was found that around 11% of people watch ASMR videos for the purpose of reducing their anxiety (McErlean & Banissy, 2017).

Many people may experience feelings of increased wellbeing after watching ASMR videos as well as a temporary relief in mood for those who have depression (Barratt & Davis, 2015). 

Watching ASMR videos is believed to decrease levels of sadness for many, as well as increasing pleasant affect, but only for those who experience ASMR.

It has thus been suggested that ASMR is a reliable and physiologically rooted experience that may have therapeutic benefits for mental health (Poerio et al., 2018). Improvements in mood tend to be more pronounced among those with moderate to severe depression. 

In addition, experiencing ASMR was found to activate brain areas which are also activated during caring behaviours such as social grooming (Lochte et al., 2018).

Because of the social and interpersonal context in which a lot of ASMR videos display, it is possible that ASMR stimulates a form of social grooming which facilitates wellbeing and mimics interpersonal bonding.

Mindfulness

It is possible that spending time engaging in ASMR could be a form of mindfulness. Those that watch ASMR are taking the time to focus on positive emotions triggered by different stimuli and focusing on the task at hand. This behaviour is reminiscent of mindfulness practices.

If ASMR can be categorized as a mindfulness practice, this may be an explanation for why there are improvements in mood observed in both depressed and non-depressed individuals who engage in ASMR. 

Individuals who experience ASMR were found to have higher scores on the Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale, a global measure of mindfulness (Fredborg, Clark, & Smith, 2018).

This suggests that the sensory-emotional experiences associated with ASMR could be partially explained by characteristics associated with mindfulness. 

Lower stress

Everyday stress can elevate heart rate, make it hard to relax and can interfere with sleep. After watching ASMR videos, people reported increased levels of calmness and decreased levels of stress.

ASMR has also been found to significantly lower the heart rate of people who experience ASMR (Poerio et al., 2018).

This reduction in heart rate may mimic the relaxation that naturally occurs as one falls asleep, whilst also lowering stress levels.

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About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

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How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, March 16). What Is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)? . Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/what-is-asmr.html

APA Style References

Barratt, E. L., & Davis, N. J. (2015). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state. PeerJ, 3, e851.

Fredborg, B. K., Clark, J. M., & Smith, S. D. (2018). Mindfulness and autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). PeerJ, 6, e5414.

Fredborg, B., Clark, J., & Smith, S. D. (2017). An examination of personality traits associated with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Frontiers in psychology, 8, 247.

Gerry, L. M. (2020, July 24). What Is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)? Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-asmr-4582673 

Lochte, B. C., Guillory, S. A., Richard, C. A., & Kelley, W. M. (2018). An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). BioImpacts: BI, 8(4), 295.

McErlean, A. B. J., & Banissy, M. J. (2017). Assessing individual variation in personality and empathy traits in self-reported autonomous sensory meridian response. Multisensory Research, 30(6), 601-613.

Poerio, G. L., Blakey, E., Hostler, T. J., & Veltri, T. (2018). More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. PloS one, 13(6), e0196645.

Sleep.org. (2020, November 20). What is ASMR? https://www.sleep.org/sleep-questions/what-is-asmr/#what___s_the_science_behind_asmr__4 

Smith, S. D., Katherine Fredborg, B., & Kornelsen, J. (2017). An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Social neuroscience, 12(4), 361-365.

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