The Appeal and Science of ASMR

Imagine you have a test tomorrow morning. You’ve been studying all night—it's now 12:30 AM. You’re laying in bed wrapped tightly in your covers like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Your blanket feels soft to the touch and your head rests so comfortably on your pillow. You shut your eyes and prepare to rest.

But, ten minutes in. A thought pops up. Did you study enough? You open your eyes and stare up at the ceiling. More thoughts begin to race through your mind. Do you have a parscore? Does your calculator have fresh batteries? What if he asks a question about the section that I just glanced over? You shut your eyes again, trying to block out all the pervasive thoughts. Instead, you try to picture a river flowing through a forest. But, the thoughts creep up again. Sooner than you know it, you’re laying down staring at the bright red second hand and the corresponding ticks on your alarm clock. When will I ever go to sleep? Why can’t I sleep?

Image via Her World 

I cannot count the number of times this has happened to me. There would always be these nights where I want to go to sleep but can’t and don’t know why. One night, I decided to take control of my poor sleeping habits and searched on Youtube for calming sounds to listen to minutes before hitting the hay. While I meant to tap on a video titled “Soothing Rainforest Sounds”, I clicked on another video by mistake. At first, I wanted to close the video but the title read “Gryffindor Common Room Ambience | Harry Potter ASMR Animated Video | Relax, Study” and I became intrigued.

The video was an almost still picture, with the only movement coming from the dancing flames in the fireplace. The audio included a mixture of many different sounds—the crackling fire, the whistling wind blowing through the curtains, and the rustling of papers. I was transported into another world. I was at Hogwarts. Soon enough, I started to use these videos to put myself at ease and eventually into deep sleep.

Image via Harry Potter Lexicon

The success I had with ASMR videos triggered my curiosity. I kept asking myself, "What does it do to the brain? What does it do to our bodies? How does it put us at ease?" The questions turned into my investigation of this trending phenomenon.

Image via The Miter

ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is a term used to describe a pleasant feeling individuals experience when they are exposed to different visual and auditory triggers, such as someone whispering, brushing, pages turning, and much more. People who’ve experienced it characterize it as a warm tingling that starts in the back of your head and slowly travels down your spine and to the rest of your body. These triggers miraculously culminate to a feeling of relaxation and calmness.

Youtubers have been uploading videos in the hopes of stimulating this response in its viewer. For instance, one of my favorite Youtubers, Natalie from Natalies Outlet brought her microphone very close to her arrangement of succulents and cacti and slowly poured water over them. The sounds produced a calming sound of running water. Others have tried to induce this phenomenon by squishing slime, brushing their hair, or tapping their fingers against the microphone.

But, Dr. Giulia Poerio from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology pointed something out: some people feel a tingling response and others don’t. The variation of experiences inspired Dr. Poerio to further investigate ASMR, particularly the physiological effects that may be responsible for the tingling feeling most people in the ASMR community get. Research conducted at her university showed people who experienced ASMR are genuinely responding to something. Two experiments were conducted. One relied on self-reports and the other looked at the physiological basis for the ASMR response.

After taking many research methods-based classes, red flags came up when I read “self-reporting. Since ASMR is a trending phenomenon on social media outlets like Youtube and Instagram, these individuals may be subject to confirmation bias. This means they could be watching an ASMR video and claim they feel something but actually do not have the physiological response to back it up.

The second experiment produced more legitimacy. In this study, half the students were recruited because they experience ASMR and the other half of students did not. The researchers hooked participants up to a device to measure their heart rate while they watched ASMR videos. For those who said they experienced ASMR, their heart rates were reduced more than those who do not experience ASMR. The study showed that people who do experience ASMR are experiencing a genuine and legitimate physiological response to the stimuli.

Image via Wikipedia

If you who do experience ASMR, listening to the ASMR triggers can significantly improve your mental and physical health. Since it's midterm season for most of us, watching a few of these videos before heading to bed would do you no harm. We are constantly studying, working, and often neglect what we should also be prioritizing—our health. Your body needs to be put to rest, which is precisely what ASMR does! Once you're relaxed and your tensions are relieved, everything can fall into place and you can get your life together. Some long-term benefits of ASMR include stress relief, relieved muscle tension, improved digestion, improving mood, and much more. Many insomnia patients tend to watch these ASMR videos in order to help them fall asleep.

Sure, the research has shown ASMR is a physiological response, but other scientists in the academic community have many more questions. Does this do anything to the brain? What do people’s brain waves look like when they are experiencing ASMR? Cortisol levels? All these unanswered questions show there is still so much work to be done. While there is still much research to be done regarding ASMR, I think it is a phenomenon worth investing time into and exploring in greater detail. And who knows? Soon enough, it might be even become a new type of therapy. But how will we tailor it to these obvious individual differences? We’ll have to just wait and see for these new developments to take shape. For now, we can sit back, relax, and let our senses take over.