Introduction

If I told you that listening to softly spoken or whispered voices, crisp sounds (such as nails tapping, crinkling paper or crunching), watching repetitive movements (such as folding towels), or watching someone roleplay close personal attention (like having your haircut) would send shivers down your spine and catapult you into a state of relaxed bliss, you would think I am crazy. Well, it’s true!

As we speak, there are literally millions of people all over the world mesmerized watching YouTube videos of such seemingly mind-numbingly boring activities, and they can’t get enough of them!  What is this phenomenon? it is ASMR!

What is ASMR?

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

  • Autonomous: spontaneous, self-governing, within or without control
  • Sensory: pertaining to the senses or sensation
  • Meridian: signifying a peak, climax, or point of highest development
  • Response: referring to an experience triggered by something external or internal

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_sensory_meridian_response

ASMR can be defined as a response to certain audio and/or visual stimuli known as  ‘triggers’, which elicit ‘tingly’ pleasant feelings of calm, relaxation and wellbeing. This ‘tingle’ sensation typically originates on the scalp and travels down the spine, and can sometimes extend to the back, arms and legs. The tingly sensations can vary in intensity.

Not all people experience ASMR, and those who do experience ASMR have different triggers. ASMR followers are receptive to many different triggers, and because of this, there is a wealth of different themes being played out in ASMR videos to cater for these needs.  In general, however, some of the most common triggers include, but not limited to:

  • Whispering and soft talking
    • General conversation
    • Mouth sounds such as kissing and chewing
  • Ambient sounds
    • Scratching and tapping
    • Crinkling of paper
    • Page turning
    • Brushing
    • Touching of slime
    • Crunching bubble wrap
  • Personal attention involving role play, and mundane tasks
    • Making a bed, folding towels
    • Brushing hair, getting a haircut, using a hair dryer
    • Scalp massage
    • Having a facial or makeup applied
    • Visiting a doctor or dentist
    • Ear brushing
    • Eye or ear examination

These videos generally involve a single person, and while the majority of ASMR YouTube channels are presented by women there are also many male presenters with a big following.

Most people who experience ASMR report that they first experienced it in childhood but were unable (and often reluctant) to describe their feelings in words, for fear of being labelled as ‘odd’ or ‘abnormal’. Following the growing awareness and online presence of ASMR, upon discovering there was a name for their feelings, and that many others also experienced ASMR, many people often report relief in knowing they are part of a community of like-minded people.

Likewise, people who do not experience ASMR may struggle to understand it and may actually react negatively to the stimuli in ASMR videos, finding it annoying or even uncomfortable.

Furthermore, there is debate as to whether ASMR exists, but is rather identical to the sensation of the ‘chills’ one can experience listening to particularly emotional pieces of music (Poerio 2016).

Health Benefits of ASMR

The ASMR University website provides a list of the supposed health benefits of ASMR. These include:

  • Relaxation
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Helps relieve insomnia
  • Improves sadness and depression
  • Helps relieve chronic pain
  • Autism spectrum disorder (this claim is too vague and should not be listed)

Source: https://asmruniversity.com/2018/01/21/health-benefits-of-asmr/

It is important to note that some of the health benefits listed on this website have supporting scientific citations, however some claims are based purely on 1) preliminary findings from an online survey (~20,000 respondents so far), and 2) recorded testimonials on the ASMR University website.

Origins of ASMR

It is not clear how and when ASMR was ‘discovered’. According to a recent review (Poerio 2016), the first online discussions of ASMR appeared on various online forums (such as SteadyHealth.com and IsITNormal.com) around 2007. The first ASMR YouTube video was posted by WhisperingLife in 2009, who reportedly created the whispering video because they wanted to share their own enjoyment and relaxation from whispering with others.

According to Wikipedia, the actual term ASMR was reportedly first coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a cybersecurity professional from New York who founded the ASMR Group on Facebook.

Prior to this, there was debate within the ASMR community about the appropriate term, and proposed formal names included “auditory induced head orgasm”, “attention induced euphoria” and “attention induced observant euphoria”, with informal terms such as “brain massage”, “head tingle”, “brain tingle”, “spine tingle” and “brain orgasm”.

Around this time, the rise of YouTube videos was accompanied by growing interest on the Reddit website, which posted in 2011 a subreddit called “ASMR. Sounds that feel good”. Soon the mainstream media picked up on the growing online trend of ASMR, and since 2012, many news articles have been published on the subject.

The google trends plot below shows how the percent interest in the search term ‘ASMR’ has gone from close to 0% in 2010 to 100% in 2018. As for a comparison, a similar search term ‘Relaxation Techniques’ has shown no increase during the same time period, hovering around 70% interest. This is an indication of the increasing attention that ASMR is getting online.

The Rise of YouTube ASMR videos

 Bob Ross (1942 – 1995) is a well-known American landscape artist who hosted a half-hour instructional television show titled “The Joy of Painting” which ran from 1983 to 1994. He has since become one of the most popular and well-loved ASMR artists and is known in the ASMR community as the ‘godfather’ of ASMR (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/user/BobRossInc).

However, this claim to fame was totally unintentional. Although Bob Ross was a talented painter in his own right, in the ASMR world, he became a legendary figure because his silky-smooth voice, gentle brush strokes, and the soft sound of bristles against the canvas, were for thousands of people strong triggers for the relaxing tingles of ASMR.

People tuned in to his shows to be lulled into a state of relaxation more so than to learn how to paint!

Since the Bob Ross TV shows in the mid 1990’s and the emergence of YouTube, the growth of ASMR videos has been explosive. For example, a YouTube search for “ASMR Channels” yielded 395,000 results. To give you a sample of how ASMR is growing on YouTube, I collected data on the first 35 channels (in order of relevance) that have over 100,000 subscribers.

Among these channels there were a total of 13,973,087 subscribers, 8121 videos, with 3,435,291,994 views (that is 3.4 billion!). I also collected the date when the channel started on YouTube and calculated the number of days it has been available (Today’s Date [07 Mar 2018] – Channel Start Date).

I then summed these days (total days=47,049) and divided the total number of views by the total number of days; results showed on average there were 73,015 views daily. Keep in mind this is only based on the first 35 channels from the search results.

As shown in the plot below, based on the number of subscribers the most popular channel is “ASMR Darling” with 1,459,612 subscribers and an average of 211,381 views per day from only 121 videos (a total of 250 million views). However, “Satisfying Slime ASMR” has slightly less subscribers (n=1,435,709) with 1029 videos and a total of 654 million views, which averages out to be 730,826 views per day (for the time period they have been on YouTube).

In the next plot you can see the number of subscribers based on how many years the channel has been on YouTube. Once again, the two standout channels are “ASMR Darling” and “Satisfying Slime ASMR”. For example, “ASMR Darling” has been on YouTube just over 3 years (1183 days) and on average they would have recruited 1233 subscribers per day.

Similarly, “Satisfying Slime ASMR” has 1,435,709 subscribers and having been on YouTube just around 2.5 years (895 days) they would have recruited 1604 subscribers per day.

In the next plot you can see the number of views based on how many years the channel has been on YouTube. As previously stated, “Satisfying Slime ASMR” has 654 million views within only 2.5 years. Whereas, “Gentle Whispering ASMR” has the next highest number of views at 434 million, but this was over 7 years on YouTube.

Debate about the confusing sexual nature of ASMR videos

It has been argued that the majority ASMR artists are attractive females and some role play videos can be seen as ‘provocative’. Therefore, it has been suggested that there is a sexual element to the sensations of ASMR. The ASMR community however vehemently rejects the suggestion that ASMR is sexual.

While the majority of ASMR content is non-sexual, the debate remains that a small minority may find the videos sexually stimulating. Recently, a division had occurred within the ASMR community over the subject of sexual arousal, and some ASMR artists are now creating videos which have been categorized as ASMRotica, deliberately designed to be sexually stimulating.

Rather than being sexual in nature, it has been suggested that there may be an emotional element to ASMR.  Andersen (2015), suggested that ASMR videos are an experience of ‘pure affect’ which create a sense of ‘distant’ interpersonal intimacy created by the virtual physical proximity of the whisperer.  The connection between ASMR, emotion and mental state is indeed intriguing, and research is required to tease out the processes involved.

What scientific research has been published on ASMR?

Although the world of ASMR followers has been growing exponentially for the past decade or so, ASMR remains poorly understood. The scientific community has only recently started to explore the neurological, biological and psychological mechanisms underlying this tingling and relaxing sensations of ASMR.

Since 2012 there have only been five quantitative studies (Barratt & Davis 2015; Barratt et al. 2017; Fredborg et al. 2017; Poerio 2015; Smith et al. 2017), and two review articles (Anderson 2015; Del Campo et al. 2016) published.

The most recent study analyzed data on 580 individuals (290 with ASMR and 290 without ASMR) regarding the personality traits among people who experience ASMR. Results showed that among those with ASMR there were significantly higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism, and significantly lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness compared to matched controls (Fredborg et al. 2017).

A study in England surveyed 475 volunteers (245 males, 222 females) that were recruited by responding to an advertisement on specialized ASMR interest groups on Facebook and Reddit (Barratt & Davis 2015). The survey asked questions relating to ‘when’ and ‘why’ individuals engage in ASMR, and the relation of ASMR to other known phenomenon.

The main reasons why people engaged in ASMR was to relax, help them sleep, and help deal with stress. The main ASMR triggers were whispering (75%), personal attention (69%), crisp sounds (64%) and slow movements (53%). Other biological mechanisms mentioned in this study is that ASMR helped relieve people of chronic pain, and also improved their general mood.

The same researchers in England extended their investigations by conducting an online survey of 130 people who self-reported experiencing ASMR (Barratt et al. 2017). They focused on assessing multisensory factors contributing to the successful induction of ASMR through online media.

A broad range of outcomes were studied, including 1) timing and trigger load, 2) characteristics of ASMR content, 3) ideal spatial distance from various types of stimuli 4) visual characteristics, 5) context and use of ASMR triggers, and 6) audio preferences.

They found that lower-pitched, complex sounds, and slow-paced detail-focused videos to be the most effective ASMR triggers. Interestingly, background music inhibited the sensation for many respondents.

Another small study in England invited 91 people in London to watch one of ten ASMR YouTube video clips and report on their experience of ASMR (Poerio 2015). Interestingly, over half the people reported experiencing ASMR.

However, the author does state “Although this may suggest that ASMR is prevalent, the high rates of ASMR in this sample may be biased (e.g. people who experience ASMR may have been more likely to take part)”.

Only one neurological study has been published (Smith et al. 2017). This study conducted a brain MRI in 11 individuals with ASMR and 11 matched controls without ASMR to investigate and compare the default mode network (DMN) between the two groups. In simple terms, the way people’s brains are wired may influence whether they experience ASMR.

The DMN of individuals with ASMR showed significantly less functional connectivity than that of controls, as well as increased connectivity between regions in the occipital, frontal, and temporal cortices. These findings suggest that ASMR is associated with a blending of multiple resting-state networks.

Bottom line on research

There is very little research on ASMR and therefore very little is understood about the neurological, physiological, psychological and biological mechanisms associated with ASMR.

The science of ASMR is in its infancy, and it will take years to develop an evidence-base to underpin ASMR as a credible therapeutic tool for anxiety, insomnia, depression and other mental and physical health conditions. Rigorous randomized controlled trials are needed to compare ASMR with standardized psychological therapies.

The knowledge gained from this research could potentially be used to develop ASMR interventions that may assist sufferers of various mental and physical health conditions. But there is still a long way to go!

Nevertheless, in the meantime, people can enjoy ASMR videos to help them go to sleep, or wind down after a stressful day.

Conclusion

ASMR is a worldwide phenomenon that millions of people are subjectively benefiting from, and as far as we are aware, there is no potential harm associated with ASMR.

As shown by the statistics from YouTube, there is no doubt that ASMR is growing in popularity and people are enjoying the wealth of ASMR videos available. From a non-commercial point of view, what makes ASMR particularly appealing is that there is no health gimmick being sold and it is purely for personal satisfaction and relaxation.

However, whether ASMR will get to the stage of becoming a commercial ‘product’ or ‘service’ is not out of the realm of possibility. For example, there is already an ‘ASMR clinic’ in New York City [note: the name of the clinic is not mentioned here as this article is not intended as advertising].

In conclusion, there is no doubt that ASMR exists, however it is poorly understood and warrants further scientific research into this spine-tingling phenomenon.