For those who are tuned into digital trends, internet memes and viral videos, the acronym ASMR probably sounds familiar. Ask those same people what it stands for or what it means, however, and they’re likely just as bewildered as the rest of us. ASMR – or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – is one of the biggest internet crazes of recent times. Yet, nobody really knows why it works the way it does.
You may have stumbled across ASMR videos on YouTube or other streaming sites. They’re uploaded in large numbers, often by amateur vloggers and content creators. These videos are defined by the way they utilise sound. Highly sensitive microphones are positioned close to objects like buttons, tissue paper and long hair. The sounds of these objects as they move get amplified in a way that’s unusually sensual.
Viewers report feelings of calmness, serenity and, most importantly, physical stimulation. In fact, the most common response to ASMR videos is a literal tingling in different areas of the body, but particularly across the neck and scalp. Scientists call this response the ‘head orgasm.’ If it all sounds a little strange, you’re not alone. Even the experts can’t fully explain ASMR science and or why it gives us the quivers.
Digging Deep into the Science of ASMR…
The problem for scientists and researchers is there’s very little information about this phenomenon. It’s possible the mechanisms behind it are used in other sensory tools and materials. However, the degree of public interest is both new and unexpected. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people across the world are subscribing to dedicated ASMR channels. Why is it such a big craze and does it work for everybody?
In 2016, there was one (yes, just one) research paper on ASMR. In 2019, there’s a whole lot more. Scientists are fascinated by its popularity and want to know why videos of people tapping on desks or running fingers through hair are causing such tremendous tingles. According to Dr. Nick Davis, the interesting thing about ASMR is its sensory elusiveness. People find it hard to describe how it makes them feel, so it’s not clear whether enthusiasts are having uniform or deeply personal experiences.
As part of a study of 500 people, Davis asked questions about when, where and why ASMR videos are viewed to try to identify common triggers. He says “We were most interested in finding out if everybody is triggered by the same sort of things.” He also quizzed the participants on their mood both before and after watching ASMR content. This is important because the material has also been linked to feelings of happiness and relaxation.
Tapping, Wrapping and Crisp, Calm Clips…
Davis found that, for the vast majority of people, ASMR triggers fall within a few specific categories of sound. By far the most popular and affecting is whispering. It’s closely followed by crisp, crunchy sounds such as somebody manipulating tissue paper or dry leaves. Videos involving slow movements – and drawn out sounds – are also popular, as are videos containing gentle tapping, knocking and rustling noises.
One thing Davis wants to dispel is the assumption ASMR science is rooted in sexual stimulation. While some viewers admit to deriving sexual pleasure from ASMR, it’s a much smaller proportion than you might expect. Only 5% of people describe the skin tingles and other sensations they experience as sexual. Maybe the phrase ‘head orgasm’ is not so useful when trying to understand this peculiar craze.
On the other hand, there’s something undeniably intimate about videos of somebody whispering, with the microphone so close you can hear every gasp, sigh and moan. It may not be viewed for sexual pleasure, but there’s something rather carnal about it. Watching ASMR videos feels voyeuristic at times as if you’re listening in to the private, vulnerable moments of a stranger. Are people kidding themselves? Is ASMR a new kink for the digital age?
Davis says no: “The fact so many people get triggered by whispering tells us it’s more about the vulnerability of the viewer. They enjoy feeling relaxed and vulnerable with another human being.” He’s right in that most enthusiasts claim to watch ASMR content to relieve stress, insomnia and other tensions. Yet, if it’s true ASMR science has less to do with sex and more to do with therapy, why don’t we know more about it?
Investigating Our Relationship with Sound…
One possible reason for a lack of research on ASMR science is, simply, because we didn’t acknowledge it as a common experience until recently. It’s a type of phenomenon that’s difficult to describe with words. Many people assume it’s personal to them: just an odd quirk of a unique and complex body. Like sneezing when hungry or jerking awake as you start to fall asleep, it’s just one of those things. We think: It’s probably just something I do.
Student researcher Emma Barratt calls it ‘an odd type of frisson or goosebumps. It’s just something we don’t tend to ask other people about, even if it’s not sexual.’ She’s working on a project designed to monitor physiological responses to ASMR. Like other scientists, she’s keen to find out what (if any) specific changes occur in the body when somebody reacts to whispering, rustling or tapping videos.
From a broader perspective, there may be potential for ASMR to be utilised as a therapeutic tool. For many researchers, it’s the primary goal; to find out whether this type of content has a positive impact on stress, insomnia, anxiety, depression and other conditions. Rather promisingly, Davis says 69% of people with moderate to severe depression are confident in the belief ASMR alleviates their symptoms.
Whether it’s a tingle in the toes, a fizzing in the fingers or a sensual sizzle across the scalp, ASMR makes people feel happy. We may not fully understand why, but is it important? Should we be digging deep to discover the root of our fascination or just embracing our love of all things tickly, whispery, breathy, crackly and crunchy?