What Is ASMR and Why Are People Watching These Videos?

ASMR videos are very popular and may help some people with insomnia.

Posted Sep 26, 2018

On the recommendation of a colleague I put the letters “ASMR” into the search bar for You Tube. Many possible videos came up. Some of these videos had a great number of views. One had over 15 million! I clicked on the first video and saw something like this as the video unfolded before me:

A young woman is sitting behind an old style microphone, which she taps lightly several times, resulting in a sound like that when you test a microphone to see if it is working. She picks up a brush and starts brushing her hair and in a barely audible voice, while moving toward and then away from the mike, and then back and forth from the left to the right side, says:

“Hello. (Very quiet and breathy.) Are you ready to relax and gently prepare for sleep? Some slow and easy brush sounds may help you relax. As you relax I will be caring for you. Nothing to do but listen and relax. Now I’m going to sense your aura so I can better serve you. I hope that you will feel better and if you like I will make you feel more comfortable. We live in both pain and pleasure and life is some of both. You need never be alone.  Now let me get some information about you as we continue.”

Throughout this she brushed her hair and then began writing with a pencil on a piece of paper close to the mike so that the scratching sound of the pencil on the paper was clearly heard as she continued to ask questions and write answers. 

“Do you want to get more information about how to relax and sleep better? Your email address is?…. (She began to tap the microphone so that an almost heart beat-like sound came through my headphones). OK, good then. Now for a trigger. (She picked up a small purse and began to scratch its surface. Then she opened and closed the zipper several times while also tapping the surface of the purse.) Great. Now another trigger. (She took a sheet of paper and brought it close to the microphone while gently rattling it.) Do you like this sound? (She slowly tears the paper. Then she picked up the brush and held it close to the microphone and started scraping it slowly over the surface of the purse). Soooooo relaxing. So gentle. Do you want to sleep now? (Switching the sound of her voice back and forth from the left side to the right side.) Let me give you a bit of a massage. On the scalp. Relaxing. Now I will use the brush. Some tingling feelings.”

This continued for another 20 minutes. I returned to the search page and started another video. This one was posted only two weeks ago and already had about two million views. I started it and it was similar to what was described above. It was about 25 minutes in length.

After a few more videos, I was not sure exactly what I had experienced. Was I relaxed or somewhat put off? Did I feel sleepy? Or more tense? In many ways these video presentations seemed like standard guided relaxation, meditation, or hypnosis inductions but also emphasized such ideas as taking care of the viewer (without being physically able to do anything for the viewer), sometimes inquiring about the viewer’s personal background (obviously with no answer being expected – these are videos and are not interactive), and the viewer experiencing sensations described as “tingling” (which it seemed was assumed to be occurring). 

I was first made aware of ASMR by a colleague, who knew of my interest in the use of behavioral techniques to improve sleep. He had seen a news report on a social media phenomenon occurring on You Tube and Facebook that involved people making videos in which they whisper and make ordinary sounds like scratching and brushing that many people found relaxing and that helped those suffering with insomnia. These videos, which began appearing frequently in about 2010, began to get millions of views and continue to do so today. In fact, there are live streaming channels where you can view hours of ASMR sounds in real time. I have also noticed that some You Tube videos incorporate ASMR type patter, often as a parody of these actual ASMR videos. People have even started identifying unintentional examples of it in media such as movies

The New York Times had an article on this a number of years ago that introduced many people to ASMR. More recently articles in the popular press have started to appear in magazines like the New Yorker and in newspapers, again, such as the New York Times. Some entrepreneurs are trying to move the experience into the physical world by offering live sessions with pre-session questionnaires to determine what stimuli are most effective for the client. Whole web sites are dedicated to providing information about ASMR and gathering survey data about people’s experience with it. A nice video introduction to ASMR was recently done by the New Yorker and it gives a good sense of what these videos and the sounds and sights they use are like.

ASMR is intriguing and I have wanted to discuss it for some time but felt that it was largely a social media development with little or nothing in the way of a scientific basis. I have had a small number of patients who have used these videos and they report finding them helpful. This lack of empirically based information has been a limiting factor in my feeling comfortable recommending it as a technique to help patients with insomnia. Recently this has started to change and studies are being conducted that may bring it into the realm of science and possibly practice (Lloyd, Ashdown, & Jawad, 2017).

I have long been interested in the psychological effects of sound. Hearing stirring or relaxing music can have an immediate and powerful effect on one’s emotional state. Listening to a gentle rain or the sounds of nature in a wooded area can be very relaxing and devices that can produce these sounds or recordings of them are used by multitudes to rest, relax, and fall asleep. By contrast, the deep and frightening sounds of a severe thunderstorm can make it difficult to relax and sleep. The thunder can make one feel small and weak before the raw power of nature. Like smell, taste, and sight, hearing often triggers in us emotions and memories that deeply affect us. Sounds can have unusual and mysterious effects. In the next several blogs I want to address several of these including the strange effects that hearing gum being chewed can have on some people and the use of sound to potentially entrain brainwaves to facilitate relaxation and sleep. 

So what exactly is ASMR? The term itself was coined by Jennifer Allen, a nonscientist looking to create an official sounding name for a sensory phenomenon that was beginning to appear in online videos and discussions, but which at the end of the last decade still had no name.There are different ways of defining and understanding it. The letters stand for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it “describes the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, tapping, and hand movements” (Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri, 2018).  The Wikipedia entry on ASMR defines it as “…a term used for an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine” and gives quite a lot of information about its history and background. Fredborg, Clark, & Smith (2017) describe it as “a perceptual condition in which the presentation of particular audio-visual stimuli triggers intense, pleasurable tingling sensations in the head and neck regions, which may spread to the periphery of the body”. Barratt & Davis (2015), in one of the first studies to begin scientific investigation of ASMR defined it as “a … sensory phenomenon, in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck and at times further areas in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli. This sensation is widely reported to be accompanied by feelings of relaxation and well-being.” 

From the time when these videos started appearing a self-selected group of viewers turned to them for relaxation and relief from depression, insomnia, and chronic pain. Many other viewers are bored or turned off by them. I know of people who have watched short segments of these videos and found them to be creepy and unpleasant. But for a certain set of people they seem to, at least anecdotally, provide something important emotionally and psychologically. Several of the makers of these videos have apparently gathered large enough followings that they can support themselves by making and providing this content. These videos, like the above mentioned cognitive behavioral techniques such as guided relaxation and meditation, may accomplish the same thing by distracting the viewer from worrisome thoughts and by providing a comforting and familiar set of sounds that may remind people of the way they were cared for as children. Or they might offer the feeling of being directly cared for even though the individual viewer is perhaps one of hundreds or thousands of people watching. As more studies are done we may be able to get a better idea of what is going on here. 

Barratt & Davis (2015) used an online questionnaire to obtain information about the components of ASMR, how these relate to other sensory experiences, and who it is that is engaging in ASMR activities. Their participants were people who responded to advertisements presented to interest groups on Facebook and Reddit. The sample was comprised of 475 responders with slightly more men than women and a small set of 8 non-binary gendered people. Most of them reported using ASMR videos for relaxation (98%), insomnia (82%), and stress (82%). They found that the most frequently used triggers were whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds like tapping fingers, slow movements, and repetitive movements. Not surprisingly, loud and jarring sounds, like airplane sounds, vacuum cleaner noise, and laughing, were not associated with ASMR. The sensation of ASMR itself was described as “a tingling sensation which originated typically towards the back of the scalp and progressed down the line of the spine and, in some cases, out towards the shoulders. Many participants also felt that their lower back, arms and legs experienced the sensation, though the amount of area the tingles covered seemed to be determined by the extent to which individuals had been triggered."

Not all viewers responded to the same triggers, and viewers experienced different levels of responses to each trigger. Interestingly, respondents reported finding that medications such as tranquilizers blunted the experience. Respondents who reported being depressed reported frequently feeling better when watching ASMR videos and this improvement in mood often lasted for a few hours as it gradually lessened over time. They also found a significant association between people who easily experience the flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and being able to easily experience ASMR, in that those who reported flow experiences also reported being affected by more triggers for ASMR. Flow has been characterized as a state of optimal experience where people are deeply involved in an activity and have an experience of deep enjoyment and involvement. While not statistically significant, they did note a possible link between the experience of ASMR and emotional synesthesia during which individuals experience emotional states that are not obviously linked to the, say, tactile stimulation that triggers it. (For more on the possible connection between synesthesia and ASMR see the post by Maureen Seaberg.)

Fredborg, Clark, & Smith (2017) looked at personality characteristics of people who experience ASMR. They compared 284 people with ASMR, of which 149 were women, to 279 matched controls, of which 156 were women, who do not experience ASMR, using a personality questionnaire. The ASMR participants were recruited from a subreddit devoted to ASMR. The control participants were recruited by a company that helps assemble research samples for survey studies. The control participants were shown two ASMR videos and were eliminated from the study if they reported an experience of tingles in response to them. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that people with ASMR had significantly higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism and lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness as compared to the controls. In addition to this, there was a positive correlation between a set of common ASMR triggers (e.g. whispering, tapping sounds, scratching sounds, etc.) and the Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism dimensions of the personality questionnaire. The higher scores on the Openness-to-Experience scale would indicate that people who experience ASMR have greater sensitivity and receptivity to sensations. The higher scores on Neuroticism may be accounted for by a greater degree of depression among the members of the ASMR sample and would be associated with lower levels of emotional stability. They suggested that, based on these results, ASMR is associated with specific personality traits. This may help explain why not everyone has this type of experience and some people experience it more profoundly than others. 

In a set of studies conducted by Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri, (2018) it was found that watching ASMR videos increased positive emotional states only in people who experience ASMR. They also found that ASMR was reliably associated with physiological markers including reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance. These studies used a number of stimuli including videos with male and female voices, videos with sound but no speaking, and non-ASMR videos so that a wide range of stimuli could be investigated. They found that people who experienced ASMR specifically had responses such as tingling and increased calmness only to the ASMR videos and not to control videos. The ASMR responders showed significantly decreased heart rate and significantly increased skin conductance in response to the ASMR videos as compared to the non-ASMR videos. 

This is, of course, an emotionally complex response to this type of stimulation in that there was decreased physiological activation as evidenced by the decreased heart rate simultaneous with increased activation or excitement shown by the increased skin conductance measured. This could explain some of the complexity of the experience in which there is relaxation (decreased tension) along with the sensation of excitement (the tingles). Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri, (2018) suggest that these results were consistent with the anecdotal reports of people with ASMR and indicate that it is a real sensory experience and may be a method of emotional regulation that could potentially have therapeutic value for some people. 

One final study that I want to mention is that conducted by Smith, Fredborg, & Kornelsen (2017). This study looked at the default mode network (DMN) in 11 people who experience ASMR with 11 who do not. The DMN is a large scale neural network in the brain composed of brain regions that closely work with each other and is most active when engaging in activities such as daydreaming or mind wandering. It becomes deactivated when the brain is mentally engaged in some task oriented activity. It includes a number of brain regions including the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate gyrus. The 11 participants were between the ages of 18 and 37 and there were five men, all of whom had self-identified as having ASMR. This was additionally confirmed by having them watch ASMR videos to be certain that they experienced ASMR in response to typical ASMR stimuli. The 11 controls were age- and sex-matched and ranged in age from 18 to 40 years of age. They also watched the ASMR videos to assure that they did not experience ASMR. 

The functional connectivity of their DMNs was assessed using functional MRI with statistical analysis. Interestingly, the findings showed that the functional connectivity of the components of the DMN of ASMR individuals was significantly less than that of the controls in some areas and greater in some others. The reduced connectivity may be associated with decreased attentional control and ASMR may involve a reduced inhibition of sensory-emotional experiences that would be suppressed in most individuals. This could have implications for the synesthesia-like experience of an emotional response to an otherwise neutral auditory or visual stimulus. The authors point out that these differences in DMN activity are functional statistical ones and may not be based in the biology of the individuals. They also point out that ASMR is not pathological and may be beneficial in that it helps those with it to relax and cope with stress and depression.

Science and practice in psychology and medicine proceed along a path of discovery, identification, and validation. New phenomena are usually discovered by the astute observation of a skilled clinician or scientist encountering a challenging situation that has not been previously reported, or emerge from laboratory work or hypotheses based on a consideration of the implications of established theory. I think of Pavlov noting that his experimental dogs were salivating before the meat powder was delivered to them and based on that observation went on to discover and begin research on classical conditioning, one of the foundations of learning theory and behavior therapy. Only after the initial discovery, identification, and reporting of a potentially useful concept can the next step be taken.  Validation, via clinical trials, is useful for separating promising but ultimately unsuccessful techniques from those that are truly beneficial and effective treatments. 

"Yin and Yang" by Klem - This vector image was created with Inkscape by Klem, and then manually edited by Mnmazur.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: "Yin and Yang" by Klem - This vector image was created with Inkscape by Klem, and then manually edited by Mnmazur.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In summary, ASMR may have some application in the treatment of insomnia for some people, and research will be needed to see if and for whom it is actually effective.  In the meantime, some people really enjoy these videos and find them helpful in easing their stress and promoting sleep. Of course, not everyone finds ASMR tingling and relaxing. In fact, as I noted, some people experience it as “creepy” or unpleasant. Similarly, there is another kind of sensory experience in which certain sounds that are benign to most people evoke powerful negative emotions such as disgust and anger in others. These strong negative responses can cause serious difficulties for some people and comprise a disorder known as misophonia. Misophonia is a relatively rare disorder that afflicts certain people and makes particular sounds, such as chewing and drinking, nearly unbearable. It is an open question as to why some people have this kind of response to some of the same sounds that people who experience ASMR find calming, tingling, and pleasant. What is it about these sounds that can trigger such different reactions in people? I will be discussing this in the next post.

Barratt, E.L., & Davis, N.J. (2015). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state. PeerJ, 3, e851. http://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.851

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Fredborg B., Clark J., & Smith S.D. (2017). An Examination of Personality Traits Associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Front. Psychol. 8 (247). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00247 

Junod, S.W. (2008). FDA and Clinical Drug Trials: A Short History, in Davies, M. & Kerimani, F. (eds.). A Quick Guide to Clinical Trials. Washington: Bioplan, Inc., pp. 25-55.

Lloyd, J. V., Ashdown, T. P. O., & Jawad, L. R. (2017). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: What is It? and Why Should We Care? Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 39(2), 214–215. http://doi.org/10.4103/0253-7176.203116  

Poerio G.L., Blakey E., Hostler T.J., & Veltri T., (2018). More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. PLOS ONE 13(6): e0196645. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196645

Stephen D. Smith, Beverley Katherine Fredborg & Jennifer Kornelsen (2017). An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), Social Neuroscience, 12:4, 361-365,DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1188851