The relatively new psychological phenomenon known as ASMR may have numerous health benefits.
The person across from you gently reaches out and ruffles your hair. Their fingers delicately rub and scratch your scalp. They whisper in your ear, the breathiness of their voice is punctuated by the subtle smacking of their tongue and lips. A tingle starts at the back of your neck, moving up the base of your skull. You can almost feel their breath on your skin, their nails running down the back of your neck.
They aren’t really there. They’re on a computer screen and you’re sitting at home with a pair of headphones on.
Welcome to the world of ASMR, a psychological phenomenon that’s rapidly growing in popularity.
ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) refers to a sensation of tingling or warmth that is triggered by specific sounds or visual scenarios. It generally originates in the crown of the head or back of the neck and can travel throughout the periphery of the body.
The resulting sensation has garnered some more colorful names as well, including: “brain orgasms” or “brain tingles.”
ASMR itself has also been referred to as “whisper porn.”
Over the course of several years, ASMR has grown from a small niche of individuals discussing it on sites like Reddit, to a full-blown cultural phenomenon.
Today, there are now hundreds of ASMR content creators on YouTube (ASMRtists, if you’re in the know) with videos racking up millions of views.
There is also an astounding variety of ASMR content as well. You can watch a woman eat different kinds of food while a high-power microphone picks up every single bite and slurp and chew, enjoy a faux role-play session with a romantic partner, focus on different tactile experiences (such as playing with different kinds of foam or slime), or simply listen to gentle whispering.
Despite the popularity of ASMR, scientists don’t understand much about why ASMR affects people the way it does — yet.
Those who experience ASMR don’t really understand it either. They just know that they’ve found a community of like-minded individuals who have apparently sprouted up all over the internet and around the world.
Ashlie, who goes by WhispersUnicorn on YouTube, experiences ASMR and has been making videos for the past seven years. During that time, she’s built a following of more than 150-thousand subscribers. Her most popular videos have millions of views.
She says ASMR has been helpful for her to overcome insomnia. It relaxes her and helps with anxiety, too.
After the birth of her son, she said she used ASMR to cope with postpartum depression.
Ashlie’s particular trigger is whispering.
“Just growing up, I had a particular aunt who was very calm with me. She was super delicate. She didn’t have any daughters, so whenever I was around her she was always kind of babying me and really, really delicate in the way she handled me. She would brush my hair, she would put makeup on me,” Ashlie told Healthline, theorizing why the sound of whispering causes her to experience ASMR.
She also cites Bob Ross, the children’s TV show painter, as a major influence on her as an ASMRtist. She’s not alone either. The ASMR subreddit lists Bob Ross as a “common trigger” along with things like with whispers, painting, and brush sounds.
Despite the more salacious terms used to describe ASMR, Ashlie says her experience isn’t actually like an orgasm at all. It’s not even sexual.
“It’s kind of like a background noise for me. It allows me to stop thinking about all the things I have to do and all the things that are going through your mind at 3 AM, and you can just kind of zone out and listen to someone talk about whatever they are talking about,” she said.
As ASMR has moved from the fringes of the internet into the spotlight, researchers have begun to notice.
However, the scientific study of ASMR is barely in its nascency.
The first-ever research article on the subject was published in 2015 by researchers in the psychology department at Swansea University in the United Kingdom.
That research essentially laid the foundation for future research on the subject by using a small cohort of people to look at things like common triggers, and whether viewing ASMR videos affects mood.
Their results suggest that ASMR viewing can provide “temporary relief in mood,” and that it could be used by certain individuals “to achieve relaxation and for stress-relief purposes.”
There are still plenty of questions that remain about ASMR, but researchers are now probing deeper into the phenomenon than ever before.
Canadian researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto and University of Winnipeg published a journal article this year examining ASMR as a form of “mindfulness.”
The researchers had 284 participants complete a series of questionnaires to compare how experiencing ASMR compared to mindfulness, a well-studied state of consciousness.
In the study, the authors refer to ASMR as an “atypical sensory experience,” coupled with an “emotional response.”
You’ve likely experienced something similar, though not the same, when listening to your favorite song.
“Some people experience chills down the spine in response to certain pieces of music or specific emotional events; this is known as frisson. Other people have synesthesia, where one sensory experience automatically elicits another, such as a written number being accompanied by the perception of colors,” study co-author Stephen Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, told Healthline.
He added, “ASMR is unique in a couple of ways. First, people can often control the intensity of their tingles (to some degree). Also, the tingles occur quite reliably rather than being infrequent like frisson.”
ASMR also has measurable effects on the physiology of the body.
In a study published this year from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, researchers found that ASMR viewing reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance levels.
These physiological indicators, the researchers say, “are consistent with the idea that ASMR is a pleasant, calming but also activating experience.”
The research also further differentiates the experience of ASMR from frisson, which is associated with increased heart rate and arousal.
“We wanted to scientifically test the idea that ASMR is a relaxing experience rather than relying on anecdotal reports,” said first author Giulia Poerio, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at University of Sheffield. “We now have more objective evidence of the idea that ASMR is relaxing.”
Despite early evidence pointing to ASMR’s potential as a stress-reducing activity, every expert contact by Healthline agreed there hasn’t been enough research yet to know for certain if ASMR has legitimate therapeutic or clinical value.
Another study published this year found that while the mechanisms of ASMR are still not well understood, the phenomenon may in fact be influenced to some degree by a belief in the experience of ASMR itself — a sort of glorified placebo effect.
“Because there is so little understanding of the causal mechanisms, my co-authors and I sought to explore a very simple potential explanation, which is that some people may experience ASMR because they expect to,” said first author Daniella K. Cash, a PhD Candidate at the Cognitive and Brain Sciences doctoral program at Louisiana State University.
Their research found that those naive to ASMR (meaning they had never previously experienced it) were more likely to report experiencing it when watching a video if they were told beforehand that the video was intended to cause ASMR, even if the video didn’t actually contain any ASMR triggering content.
“Our results suggest that ASMR experiences may (at least partly) depend on what the user expects to experience,” said Cash.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the anecdotal support for ASMR as a relaxation therapy is compelling — as is the growing popularity of the phenomenon itself.
The novelty of its discovery also appears to be a driving force for researchers.
“Most of the brain-based phenomena that I encounter have been studied for decades, sometimes centuries,” said Smith. It’s likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to investigate a human experience that has, for all intents and purposes, really only become visible within the past decade.
From a clinical perspective, ASMR is intriguing but lacking enough research before it could be legitimately prescribed.
“It is very early at this stage to talk about the practical applications of ASMR, but certainly people are already using ASMR videos to help combat stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and loneliness,” said Poerio.
“ASMR research just isn’t there yet,” agreed Cash. “As scientists, we are responsible for fully understanding a phenomenon before we tout it as being something that doctors and practitioners should utilize.”
The lack of scientific evidence hasn’t stopped millions of people from searching for ASMR videos online since it first showed up as a blip on Google’s search terms in 2011. And its growing popularity shows no signs of slowing down.
While ASMR may currently be having a moment in the pop-culture spotlight, its most ardent supporters still stand behind it as a legitimate therapy.
“There are a lot of people who have told me that I’ve gotten them off of Ambien and different kinds of sleeping medications, so I think there is something to it,” Ashlie told Healthline. “I have soldiers with PTSD who have been watching my videos faithfully and I want to broach those subjects too.”
If you’re curious about whether or not ASMR can help you, there’s only one way to find out. Find a video, put on a pair of headphones, and click play.
Your brain might just start to tingle.