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Sounds Too Good to Be True? Delving into the Strange and Soothing World of ASMR

ASMR blog teaser
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a calming, tingling sensation that spreads from a person’s head and down their spine. Some people experience ASMR in response to certain audio-visual triggers.

In elementary school, our class visits to the library were the highlight of my week. I was racking up Accelerated Reader points and making extensive Scholastic Book Fair wish lists like my classmates, but I also had a secret. Our librarian was a terse, no-nonsense woman, but whenever she gathered us into a corner for story time, her hushed voice and the crisp turning of each page would send me into a trance and cause a wonderful tingling sensation to spread throughout my head. Especially good readings sent the tingles down my neck and even into my arms.

Weird, right? It’s hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. It was like quiet TV static filling my brain, or a river of bubbly seltzer water rushing under my scalp and down my spine. Over the years, certain situations and voices continued to prompt that shaken snow globe feeling in my head, but I didn’t investigate. Then, while searching for relaxing background noise a few years ago, YouTube suggested a number of videos tagged “ASMR.” Down the Internet hole I went, and I quickly discovered that I had never been alone.

The term “autonomous sensory meridian response” (ASMR) was coined to describe the tingly neurological phenomenon in 2010. But it is controversial. Although the name sounds scientific, the evidence base for the phenomenon is limited. Lily Brown, PhD, an assistant professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Penn, notes that people’s experience of a soothing sensation can be helpful, especially if they are seeking a short-term or complementary form of relief for conditions such as anxiety or depression – but she also points out, “one of the challenges for researchers in the mental health space is fighting against pseudoscience and keeping the focus on evidence-based treatments.”

The runaway popularity of ASMR on the Internet has outpaced attempts to study it; since the term “ASMR” was coined less than a decade ago, an entire community swelled up around it. While ASMR can be experienced offline in everyday life, people are turning to YouTube in droves to enjoy on-demand relaxation. There are reportedly over 13 million videos on YouTube featuring content creators (or ASMRtists) who use audio-visual triggers such as soft, breathy speech and careful, deliberate hand movements to produce the sensation for their “tingle head” viewers. It has ballooned into a true pop culture phenomenon: celebrities have joined in with their own videos, brands are capitalizing on its visibility, and non-ASMR YouTube channels have added ASMR parodies into their content mix.

Many individuals who experience ASMR point to shared triggers they first recognized during childhood, such a friend playing with their hair, being read stories by their parents, and watching the much-beloved Bob Ross paint on his television show The Joy of Painting. Among the most popular videos are those featuring whispered speech, positive affirmations, mouth sounds, page flipping and paper crinkling, tapping and scratching, writing and coloring, slow actions and explanations, and a variety of other triggers – all in an effort to help viewers relax and sometimes fall asleep.

In addition to easing stress, many viewers report that watching ASMR videos regularly helps to their manage their anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

While there is an abundance of anecdotal reports, because some people do not experience ASMR and others only respond to certain triggers or situations, it’s difficult to assess. Since 2015, a handful of peer-reviewed studies primarily conducted in the United Kingdom and Canada have been published that have made some headway by investigating the personality traits associated with ASMR, the variability of triggers between individuals, physiological responses associated with the experience, and other topics.

ASMR blog Lily Brown

For Brown, who specializes in cognitive-behavior therapy for anxiety disorders, there is much to be cautious about when digging into ASMR, but that doesn’t necessarily outweigh the reported benefits.

“While we should be concerned about extrapolating beyond the data,” she said, “I do appreciate from a lay perspective how these videos can be a soothing option and help people on their mental health journeys.”

Many people write comments on their favorite videos thanking creators for helping them get to sleep and noting that they’ve seen improvements in their mental health. Because ASMR videos encourage viewers to get their minds off of negative feelings or circumstances, they have been described as a form of free therapy. This claim is echoed in an episode of Buzzfeed Video’s Netflix series Follow This, which highlights how viewers can enjoy the benefits of ASMR and personal attention without having to become vulnerable or share anything of themselves. Nevertheless, even hour-long videos end, and consumers regularly have to look for fresh content to keep the sensation alive, prompting the question of whether ASMR can be considered therapy at all, let alone a sustainable one that can help manage long-term mental health disorders.

“There may be something to having these videos as part of a patient’s treatment,” Brown said. “When dealing with emotional dysregulation, having a suite of activities or behaviors at the ready is very important. I can easily see ASMR videos fitting into that package for people who feel relaxed while watching them.” She added that, with rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety steadily increasing, there is value in any activity that helps a person better align their thoughts and behaviors with their goals in our high-pressure, high-stress culture.

As for ASMR videos being a replacement for therapy, though, Brown urges those struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders to consider whether their ASMR playlists are really providing them with enough help.

“Overwhelmingly, patients report that they like the idea of therapy, but real or perceived barriers may lead them to choose something easier and more accessible,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t discourage the use of the videos – they could be part of the process – but so many people suffer for so long because they don’t get into the right treatment.”

There is a robust evidence base that supports cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an effective technique to address the negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to anxiety. At its core, CBT helps patients understand that anxiety is linked with avoidance. Avoiding certain triggering situations may be a temporary fix, but it exacerbates the problem.

“I think it’s important for individuals to determine whether watching these videos is truly helping them cope,” Brown said, “or if it’s providing another outlet for avoidance that could be better addressed by trying something more intensive like therapy and evidence-based treatment.”

When it comes to ASMR, further research is needed to determine what exactly is happening on a chemical level in the body, whether certain people are predisposed to experience the sensation, and why ASMR videos or in-person triggers produce feelings of relaxation in some people and tingle-less confusion in others. But while the jury is still out on the mechanics behind the ASMR experience, there’s no denying that there is an upside to this mysterious phenomenon: Millions of people are working together to soothe the stresses of their fellow tingle-heads and to make the noisy world of the Internet a little quieter and a lot more positive.

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