What Is ASMR?

Most people aren't affected by ASMR. But what does it mean for those who are?

Posted Oct 09, 2019

What do the sounds of whispered affirmations, page-turning, and tapping fingernails have in common? What about the sight of slow hand movements, soap being gently cut to pieces, and hair being brushed? Well, if you are someone who experiences the autonomous sensory meridian response—ASMR, for short—you may recognize these seemingly ordinary sounds and sights as “triggers” for the ASMR experience.

Are you sitting there scratching your head going, “Huh? Autonomous sensory what?” Don’t worry, you’re actually in the majority. Most people aren’t affected by these triggers. But what does it mean for those who are?

What Is the ASMR Experience?

It's described as a happily warm and tingling sensation that starts on the scalp and moves down the neck and spine.

ASMR first became big on the Internet in 2007, according to Wikipedia, when a woman with the username “okaywhatever” described her experience of ASMR sensations in an online health discussion forum. At the time, there was no name to describe the unique tingling phenomenon, but by 2010, someone called Jennifer Allen had named the experience, and from there, ASMR became an Internet sensation.

A New York Times article in April 2019 reported that hundreds of ASMR YouTubers collectively post over 200 videos of ASMR triggers each day. Some ASMR YouTubers have even become bona fide celebrities, raking in thousands of dollars, millions of fans, and enough fame to be stopped on the street for selfies.

But there has been some controversy surrounding ASMR. Some people doubt whether this ASMR experience is “real,” or just the result of recreational drugs or imagined sensations. Some have chalked the phenomenon up to a symptom of loneliness among Generation Z, who get their dose of intimacy from watching strangers pretend to do their makeup without having to interact with real people. Others are even actively put off by ASMR triggers. One of my Savvy Psychologist listeners, Katie, said that most ASMR videos just make her feel agitated. But another listener, Candace, shared that she has been unknowingly chasing ASMR since she was a child watching BBC.

So who’s to say if ASMR real? What does it mean for people who experience it? Is it something anyone can experience if they try hard enough?

Let's take a look at the fascinating things we’re only just starting to learn about ASMR.

Shutterstock/Andrew_Popov
Source: Shutterstock/Andrew_Popov

1. Is ASMR even real?

The short answer seems to be “Yes!”

One 2018 study recorded participants’ physiological responses while watching ASMR videos. There was an obvious difference between those who self-identified as experiencing ASMR and those who did not: The ASMR group had lower heart rates and increased skin conductance, which basically means a tiny increase in sweating.

This is worth noting because it showed that the ASMR experience was both calming (shown by the reduced heart rate) and arousing (shown by the increased sweating). This makes ASMR a different experience from simple relaxation, but also distinct from the excitement of sexual arousal or the chills that happen when you hear your favorite band play live. 

Scientists have also directly looked at how our brains function during ASMR. A group based at Dartmouth College used functional MRI to capture what happens in the brain when those who experience ASMR watched triggering videos. They found that the medial prefrontal cortex, an evolutionarily advanced part of the brain associated with self-awareness, social information processing, and social behaviors, was activated.

There was also activation in brain areas associated with reward and emotional arousal. The researchers speculate that this pattern reflects how ASMR resembles the pleasures of social engagement and bonding. If you’ve ever watched a video of monkeys grooming each other, you would totally know what they mean! Watch the face of the monkey being groomed; you can just tell they’re loving it. There is something so nice about having another monkey pick those ticks off your back, isn’t there? Maybe it even feels like warm tingles down your back!

The problem with this brain imaging study is that there was no non-ASMR comparison group, so it’s possible that anybody watching the ASMR videos the researchers used could have had a similar response. But this just means the door is open for even more research! 

2. What does experiencing ASMR say about you as a person?

Do those who experience ASMR differ from others? A 2017 study compared almost 300 self-identified ASMR experiencers to an equal number who don’t experience the sensation. The study participants answered questions on a well-established personality inventory; unsurprisingly, the ASMR participants got higher scores on Openness-to-Experience than their non-experiencer peers. However, they also had higher scores for Neuroticism, which is a general trait for being more likely to experience anxiety and negative emotions. ASMR participants also had lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness.

Another recent study also compared mindfulness between ASMR and non-ASMR people. Mindfulness refers to being grounded in the here and now. People with ASMR, by their own report, are generally more mindful, particularly curiously mindful, in their day-to-day. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you experience ASMR you’re definitely less outgoing or more mindful than your friend who doesn’t. These findings only suggest that, on average, a big group of ASMR people are more likely to, say, be curious about and open to new experiences—like trying a strange new food, eating mindfully, and contentedly hanging out by themselves.

3. Can I train myself to experience ASMR if it doesn’t come naturally? 

It's hard to say. There just isn’t any research to show that you can develop ASMR by putting in effort at it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem likely. For one, ASMR is an involuntary physiological response. Many of those who have it say that they’ve noticed it since childhood, when they didn’t even know what to call the experience. I imagine that trying to make ASMR happen would be like trying to make yourself fall in love with someone.

Also, ASMR has some similarities to other un-learnable perceptual phenomena, such as synesthesia. Synesthesia is an experience where a person's senses crossover, so that getting stimulation in one sense triggers experiences in another sense. Some examples include experiencing specific colors when reading letters, or even experiencing tastes when touching textures. It’s not something you can learn. Some researchers have suggested that ASMR is actually a form of synesthesia, or at least loosely related. If that’s the case, then ASMR may also not be something you can practice and get better at. 

But, hey, you never know. If you don’t think you’ve experienced ASMR before, or you’re not sure whether you have, take it out for a test drive. The easiest way to do this is by going to YouTube, where there are thousands of ASMR videos with a huge variety of triggers. Start with the most popular ones for the highest chance of finding the right triggers that set off sparks for you. 

(It is important to point out that an authentic ASMR experience is not a sexual experience, so if you come across videos that seem to be going for sexual stimulation… well, if you’re an adult and the adult in the video clearly seems to be okay with being in the video, why not? Just know that what you experience may not be ASMR.)

If you’re determined to get a full, customized ASMR experience and have some change burning a hole in your pocket, there are companies that work with clients one-on-one, in person, to create ASMR experiences. One company prices their service at $100 for 45 minutes—so this is likely only for the true devotee or extra-curious ASMR virgin.

You may have more questions about ASMR now than when we started. While there’s still a lot of research to be done, we can at least be confident that ASMR is a real phenomenon reflected in physiological and brain activation. We also have a peek into potential personality differences between people who have ASMR and those who don’t.

If you’ve never had an ASMR experience before, see if you respond to any of the many triggers available online. Let me know what you think!