Graphic by Ivan Vuong
My discovery of ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, changed my everyday life. I’m unsure what exactly I was doing when I watched my first ASMR video or when I began incorporating them into my daily routine, but how or when I discovered ASMR is not relevant to this article. What’s more intriguing is why ASMR’s characteristic whispers, gentle tapping and brushing sounds have the power to soothe me and many others to sleep when the phenomenon bothers others. This question piqued my curiosity to learn more about the scientific determinants behind these starkly contrasting reactions. So I decided to reach out to some of the ASMR-tists I watch regularly to see if they could answer some of my questions.
Caroline Collins, known to her subscribers as QuantumASMR, also does not know exactly when she discovered ASMR. However, the creator says that her inspiration for content stemmed from the math and science courses she took in college.
“I used to experience the feeling as a kid whenever my mom read to me, a teacher had a particularly soothing voice or when I got my eyebrows done,” Collins said. “It really calmed me down, and I was right in the middle of some pretty stressful classes and studying. I started using it to calm myself down, and it helped me so much that I wanted to give back in some way. I have always been told I have a very soothing voice, so I figured why not start my own channel?”
The sensation commonly referred to as ASMR is defined as “the ‘tingly feeling’ that travels from the head downward that some experience in response to certain sounds, feelings or descriptions.” This static or tingling sensation is typically felt at the scalp, neck and upper spine in reaction to what the ASMR world calls triggers. These triggers can include gentle hand movements, liquid sounds and even the sound of chewing. It is worth noting that what works for one person may not work for another. For those who do not experience ASMR tingles, this sensation, to me, can best be described as the chills one can get when listening to their favorite song or while watching a dramatic movie scene. It may sound crazy to those who do not feel its effects, but ASMR does have benefits. Personally, these tingly feelings generated by soft whispers and gentle tapping have gotten me through some quite stressful and sleepless nights.
Maria Viktrovnova has been making ASMR videos for 13 years and has an impressive 2.29 million YouTube subscribers on her channel GentleWhisperingASMR. She has cited her inspiration for content as often coming from “random sound or objects” that catch her attention or simply by incorporating elements she feels will work for others.
“There are endless benefits to ASMR in my opinion,” Viktrovnova said. “I personally enjoy the peace of mind and relaxation I feel when I watch an ASMR video. Some viewers use it for sleeplessness and others to help with their anxiety. I’m hopeful [that], with a growing community, there will be more medical research towards how it affects us and so we can better utilize it for those benefits.”
With research, I did get some clarity in terms of who ASMR triggers affect and why. Whether ASMR has a positive or negative effect on someone is dependent on three primary determinants.
The first, and most complicated, is a person’s level of connectedness to the default mode network (DMN) areas in the brain. To simplify this, think of it as the “default” state your mind goes into when not thinking, concentrating or interacting with your environment and those in it. It’s the part of your brain that helps you daydream, self-reflect, process memories and understand other people’s thoughts and feelings. The DMN encompasses various areas of the brain, including the frontal lobes, which are responsible for cognitive functions like decision-making, problem-solving and expressing one’s unique personality traits.
According to a study published in the scientific journal PLoS One, those who experience ASMR tingles show fewer functional connections between the frontal lobes of their brains and its sensory or attentional areas than those who do not experience the sensation. Interestingly enough, when shown trigger videos, ASMR experiencers activated brain areas related not only to sensation and emotion, but also to motor skills and attention, which helps with decision-making.
The second determinant is the type of trigger and the individual’s surroundings. This makes sense to me. It’s about preference: I’ve found ASMR triggers are most effective in quiet environments with dim lighting. While that type of environment, coupled with whispering and tapping sounds, is typically the most calming for me, this may not be the case for someone else.
The last factor is an individual’s specific personality traits or “The Big Five,” which are openness to experience, neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that those who experience ASMR tingles had higher scores on scales of openness to experience, or willingness to engage in diverse or unconventional ideas or encounters. They also had higher scores of neuroticism, or the tendency to experience anxiety and depression.
ASMR experiencers had lower levels of conscientiousness, which is associated with a person’s organizational skills and productivity. They also had lower levels of extraversion, or sociability, and agreeableness, meaning one’s compassion and trust in others.
The studies also found that those who do not experience ASMR can find these triggers aversive or annoying. So not only do I have a firmer grasp on why I feel calmer when watching Jocie B brush my TV screen while she acts out doing my makeup or skincare, but I also know why my sister thinks it’s cringey.
If you’re curious to try ASMR or see if it affects you, TheFrenchWhisperer suggests that “a good starting point is to ask yourself in which situation you experienced ASMR, and what triggered it.” The creator, who has been making ASMR content for the last decade, decided to take a cultural and educational angle to his content, treating each video as a bite-sized “lecture about a scientific or historical topic.”
“Another approach, given the sheer quantity and variety of ASMR videos available, is just to start from one of your hobbies or topics of interest,” he said. “There will be something about it, and, from there, one can start exploring.”
An interesting common thread in all of my interviews was that, when asked if they wanted to clarify any common misconceptions about ASMR, all the creators I spoke to demystified the idea that ASMR content is explicit. Viktrovnova puts it best — the videos are often “personal and intimate,” so “people can confuse it with sexuality.” All of the creators stressed that, while there may seem like a fine line between ASMR and sexual content, most people who watch and experience ASMR can testify that the feelings that watching ASMR spark take one to a place that has nothing to do with sex.
If you haven’t already attempted to dive into this immersive world of tapping, scratching and whispering — the next time you are stressed while studying or find yourself having trouble shutting your brain down, you might give it a try. It’s uncertain if the practice of watching ASMR videos will become mainstream. What is more certain is the positive benefits these triggers will continue to have on those who experience the sensation.
“I’m hopeful that ASMR will continue to help others while scientists continue to research the effects it has on us,” Collins said. “I see it being a normal part of our daily relaxation routine, alongside yoga or sound baths. There are many benefits to ASMR, and I think we’re just beginning to understand its full reach.”