Chills. Goosebumps. Tingles. “Autonomic sensory meridian response” or ASMR is described as a pleasurable wave of calm that comes to some people during exposure to gentle actions and/or sounds: think whispering, tapping fingernails or turning pages. These ordinary audio and visual triggers can inspire a deeply soothing effect on many people – making ASMR potentially appealing to people living with depression, anxiety, PTSD or even chronic pain.
“I find ASMR videos to always be extremely calming,” says one PatientsLikeMe member. “It’s basically the ‘tingles’ or a very chill feeling you get when you watch certain repeated motions or hear soft-spoken or whispered words… Give it a try, especially in moments of panic, anxiety, or agitation.”
With meditation, podcasts and soothing music as tested tools to inspire calm, it’s no secret that sound can bring on relaxation. But what exactly is ASMR and how can it help people living with chronic conditions?
The Soothing Art of ASMR
ASMR is a nonclinical term coined in 2010, and the trend has its origins online. Before it had its “official” acronym, the hard-to-describe experience and its growing presence online was mostly regarded as a quirky YouTube niche. Now, ASMR has become a full-fledged phenomenon with enough hype to place it at the center of a beer commercial that ran during the Super Bowl and a recent This American Life segment titled A Tribe Called Rest.
ASMR brings on what many people describe as a tingling at the crown of the head, which may continue down the spine and the rest of the body, in a wave of euphoria, followed by zen-like relaxation. Not everyone experiences ASMR in response to these stimuli, and there is no comprehensive data as to what percentage of the population does or does not experience it, but tens of millions of views of ASMR videos suggest that many people are indeed drawn to its effects.
Even before it had a name, ASMR had mass appeal. Bob Ross served as a proto-ASMR artist – people zoned out to the dulcet tones of the painter’s voice paired with the soft sights and sounds of his brushstrokes.
Science Behind the Shivers
Not unlike the chills – or frisson – brought upon by a pleasurable or poignant piece of music, dopamine floods the brain’s reward system when the neurotransmitter (trigger) is activated. This, in addition to the building anticipation in the moments before the music’s crescendo, may create the same type of brain activity that occurs in response to the sights and sounds of ASMR videos.
Researchers are working to generate proof of the existence of ASMR as a physiological experience and not an imagined one. After watching an ASMR-trigger video, participants in a University of Sheffield research study who claimed to experience ASMR registered lowered heart rates than those who didn’t identify as experiencers of ASMR.
In another study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers monitored brain activity during an ASMR video-watching session, with participants registering each instance of the signature tingling sensation. Their scans showed activity related to the reward (NAcc) and emotional arousal (dACC and Insula/IFG) centers of the brain.
A Sense of Calm
Columbia University sleep disorders specialist Dr. Carl W. Bazil suggests ASMR videos as a way to unwind. “People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal,” he said in the New York Times. “Behavioral treatments – guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis, and meditation – are meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. ASMR videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.”
One Patients Like Me member agrees in its ability to both lull him to sleep and help promote restful slumber: “Lately, because I had stressful dreams, I watched ASMR video while my meds were kicking in for about an hour before my sleeping time… It took some research and some trial-and-error to find an ASMR artist who suited my anxiety and entertainment wants. My dreams were then neutral in my experience.”
The majority of people who create ASMR content are women. Using calming voices, they convey tenderness and care and sometimes even emulate touch aimed toward their viewers. The sense of pleasure that the videos incite in some viewers have led come to label ASMR a “brain orgasm” or “whisper porn.” Most people do not report sexual stimulus from the videos as a prime motivator, as reduced heart rate is a common response, which is not typically associated with sexual arousal.
Have you tried ASMR or do you have questions about it? Chat with the community here, and remember to update your profile (under the “My health” tab) if you’ve tried it as part of your treatment plan.