You’ve probably heard of ASMR.
You’ve probably chanced upon videos of people whispering into the camera, or chewing loudly into the microphone, or tapping on everything and anything they find around their homes.
But if you haven’t and are still clueless, you might want to plug in your headphones, take a deep breath, and watch the following videos.
What you might have just experienced is the ASMR phenomenon, which seems to have found its rightful place as a trending genre on social media over the years. To date, there are hundreds of ASMR YouTubers (or ASMRtists as they call themselves) churning out hundreds of ASMR videos daily to meet the demands of an ever-growing following.
This following of ASMR enthusiasts have widely proclaimed the wonders of ASMR. For example, a 2015 study reported that 98% of participants watch ASMR videos to relax, 82% watch the videos to help them sleep, 70% watch the videos to deal with stress, and 80% reported a positive effect on their mood. How did you feel watching the ASMR videos above?
These claims have brought the clinical potential of ASMR to the attention of the scientific community. However, having started a decade ago, ASMR research is relatively new. There is not much known, yet much to learn about this fascinating phenomenon.
What we do know is that Jennifer Allen coined ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Median Response) back in 2010. It is often described as the tingly sensation you get in your scalp, at the back of your neck, or down your spine, caused by various auditory, visual, and sometimes even tactile triggers. Sound familiar?
One of the pioneers in ASMR research is Giulia Poeira, a researcher from the University of Essex, who decided to study the psychology of people who were experiencing ASMR. She had recruited 112 participants, half of whom were ASMR-sensitive and the other half who were not. She then made them watch various ASMR videos, one of which featured towel-folding – a common ASMR trigger, as demonstrated in the video below.
Electrodes attached to the ASMR-sensitive participants indicated lower heart rates, which meant increased relaxation. Yet, ironically, they also perspired more and had a high skin conductance, which meant increased emotional arousal. This conflicting activation and deactivation of the human body went against Poeira’s predictions and shed first light on the complexity of ASMR as an emotional experience.
And what better way to study emotions than to study the human
heart brain itself. Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University, decided to pick the brains of ASMR-sensitive people. Ten ASMR-sensitive participants were made to watch ASMR videos while undergoing an MRI scan. They had to constantly push buttons labelled ‘baseline’, ‘relaxation’, and ‘tingle’ to indicate their states of mind throughout the video. MRI scans across the different states were then compared and analysed.
His team found out that certain regions of the brain were significantly stimulated during tingles compared to baseline and relaxation states. This indicates a relationship between ASMR and the functions that these regions are often associated with, as shown below.
Given how contemporary these studies are, there are inevitable limitations that both Poeira and Richard seek to improve on in the near future. However, the research for ASMR thus far serves as good pilot studies and provides a platform to test new hypotheses.
For example, it is well known that brain activity is caused by the release and action of hormones and neurotransmitters. The stimulation of the aforementioned brain regions during ASMR is therefore closely related to the activity of oxytocin, dopamine and the likes. This has beckoned a theory that ASMR sensitivity could be determined by the quantity and quality of the respective receptors.
So if reading this article got you shaking your head saying ‘#cantrelate’ and watching the ASMR videos above did not trigger any tingles whatsoever, fret not! Because you could just belong to the group of people in this world who are simply immune to the ASMR experience.
Written by Genevieve Teo
Illustrated by Lim Daphne