ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response.” It’s a rather dry term considering the fact that it stands for a physical sensation that millions of people describe as a peaceful, joyful tingling that floods their bodies. The term was coined by a layperson and was popularized via digital media platforms. As such, it is not currently a formal medical diagnosis or widely acknowledged by the medical community, though it may be considered an emerging area of research.
These sensations can come over people when they watch certain videos or hear certain sounds. (1) ASMR can also occur in the real world in response to directly experienced sounds and sensations, such as someone gently massaging another person’s scalp.
The internet is now bursting with sites offering ASMR videos. One famous creator of these videos, known only as Maria, describes ASMR as being “like showers of sparkles. It’s like warm sand being poured all over you,” she says. “It’s like goosebumps on your brain.”
People who experience ASMR — and not all do — speak of it as a tingling that often starts in the scalp and then travels along the spine, at times reaching the limbs. Those who experience ASMR generally describe it as both pleasurable and relaxing.
Other, less frequently used terms for ASMR include AIE, for attention-induced euphoria, and AIHO, for attention-induced head orgasm. Despite this latter term, the vast majority of people who use ASMR videos state that they find them relaxing but not erotic.
What Are Some Popular ASMR Triggers?
ASMR sensations can arise in response to actual sights, sounds, or physical sensations that a person experiences directly. ASMR can also arise when people watch videos that present similar sights or sounds. Whether a person experiences the sights, sounds, or sensations in the real world or by means of videos, the ASMR stimuli are called triggers.
Popular ASMR triggers include the following:
- Whispers or other slow, gentle patterns of speech, the sounds of kissing, or lips smacking.
- Pleasing, nonhuman sounds, like a fire crackling, rushing or running water, the crinkling of paper, and white noise.
- Being the recipient of close personal care from another person or witnessing such an encounter. Some examples include being given a massage, having your hair done or just fondled by someone else, having makeup applied, and being the “patient” in situations such as a low-stress, simulated medical or optical exam.
- Observing another person working on a quiet, detailed task, such as painting a picture, fixing a bicycle, or folding paper for origami.
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How Do I Know if I Have ASMR?
Limited research on the subject suggests that if you are a person who experiences ASMR, you may very well have done so first as a young child. In a report by a British research group that surveyed 500 adults who used ASMR videos, slightly more than one-half of the respondents said that they first felt an ASMR response between the ages of 5 and 10. Some people do first have an ASMR experience in adulthood, though. (2)
You may respond to ASMR triggers, such as receiving gentle care from another person in real life, but not respond to ASMR videos. In fact, even if you respond to ASMR triggers in the physical world, you may find ASMR videos unpleasant or distasteful.
How Does ASMR Work?
Public interest in ASMR has reached high levels. However, the degree to which science can explain ASMR is quite limited. Only a few scientists have been studying ASMR, and they have been doing so for only a few years. Still, these researchers have drawn some conclusions about ASMR.
Below are some findings from a 2018 study in the journal PloS One (3):
- ASMR videos really do elicit tingling sensations along with positive emotions in those people who are prone to have ASMR. The videos do not have this effect on other people.
- ASMR fosters a complex, mixed emotional state. The positive feelings that the videos create include both calmness and excitement. Although these two emotions may sound like opposites, psychologists have long known that people can have opposite emotions at the same time. For example, nostalgia involves feelings of happiness tinged with sadness.
- ASMR has measurable effects on the body, and these effects tie in with the videos creating mixed emotions. For instance, ASMR is associated with a slowing heart rate, which is a sign of relaxation. It also is associated with the increased ability of the skin to conduct electricity (skin conductance), which is a measure of physical arousal.
- ASMR increases a person’s feeling of being connected with other people.
Future studies are likely to provide a deeper understanding of how ASMR actually works to affect the body, including the brain.
Although the research is limited, there are some studies showing changes in brain function and activity, and potential mechanisms.
One 2019 study found that participants who responded to ASMR triggers had significantly less connectivity between their frontal lobes and areas of the brain that are involved with sensory-attention compared to control groups. This suggests that they may have less ability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences that are the hallmark of ASMR. (4)
Another study from 2021 also found that participants who were ASMR-triggerable by self-report had increased alpha and gamma wave activity on tests measuring brain activity while watching or listening to ASMR content. This was not seen when they were shown non-ASMR triggering video and audio. (5)
And then a 2018 study found an association between those who report ASMR responses and their degree of reported mindfulness and curiosity on validated scales. The authors concluded the sensory and emotional experiences characteristic of ASMR and the capacity to experience ASMR may be partially explained by the degree of mindfulness of the person watching an ASMR video. (6)
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Potential Benefits of ASMR
The vast majority of people — 98 percent in one study — who seek out ASMR videos do so to relax. Eighty-two percent of that group sought the videos specifically for help with sleep. Seventy-percent of the group used the videos to deal with anxiety and stress. (2)
“I was totally amazed [by the videos’ effects],” stated one survey participant. “I started feeling an extremely relaxed trance-like state that I didn’t want to end … a little like how I have read perfect meditation should be but I never achieved.”
The fact that people seek ASMR for help with sleep and mood issues has also emerged as a key finding in other research. (3)
A newer study, published in 2022, conducted an uncontrolled online study with more than a 1,000 participants and assessed their mood and arousal levels before and after watching an ASMR video. All participants subjectively showed an increase in relaxation and improved mood. (7)
Although ASMR videos are popular, just about all research to date focuses only on immediate or short-term effects. There is no solid research on long-term effects.
Can ASMR Help Me Sleep?
Hundreds of thousands of people use ASMR videos for help sleeping, and research confirms that ASMR does induce physical changes in the body, such as a slower heart rate, that would go along with a relaxed state. But more research would be needed to fully confirm if ASMR videos would be an effective treatment for insomnia.
ASMR Triggers: Stimulations and Sensations
Certain ASMR triggers stand out for being mentioned frequently by people who experience the response. Keep in mind that ASMR triggers can be effective when a person experiences them in the real world or observes them either in person or online.
Common visual and audible triggers include:
- Haircuts and hair brushing
- Massages and other situations in which one person is gently giving another person close personal attention
- People doing repetitive tasks, such as folding laundry or working at crafts
- Soft sounds, such as whispering, low laughter, book pages being turned, or gentle scraping
- Crisp sounds, such as tapping fingernails or metallic foil being crunched
- Loud sounds, such as those from a vacuum cleaner or airplane
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ASMRtists: Both Intentional and Unintentional ASMR
Some creators make videos expressly to induce ASMR, and ASMR users seek out these videos for the good feelings that they foster. This is intentional ASMR. Among the most popular such creators are the following ASMRtists:
Other superstars of the ASMR world never even heard of the term. Their videos have just turned out to provide content that is soothing and ASMR-inducing to lots of people. These creators are considered unintentional ASMRtists. The most famous of them is the late art teacher Bob Ross.
How Popular Are ASMR Videos?
ASMR videos first emerged in large numbers online in about 2010. They began to attract millions of views fairly quickly and remain hugely popular today.
Media giants, such as The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, and CNBC.com, have run long stories about ASMR videos and the online entrepreneurs who create them, including Maria. Maria’s YouTube channel has more than two million subscribers.