I began experiencing autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) as a kindergartner, though back then there was no term for it. It mostly happened when people helped me — as my teacher reached from behind to type on the desktop keyboard, when my pediatrician performed physiological tests on my body, or while my friend moved game pieces across a patterned board and quietly explained the game to me. These experiences gave me tingles that started from my head and flowed through the rest of my body, leaving me blissfully happy and relaxed. I began looking for the sensation whenever someone helped me, testing out what worked and what didn’t. However, I never told anyone — it took years for me to realize fully what was happening.
In 2010, nonscientific online forum contributor Jennifer Allen introduced the term “autonomous sensory meridian response” as a name for the experience. Since then, people with ASMR have created a prominent online global community, which connects people of diverse races, classes and genders. Although it has been a popularly acknowledged physical experience for nearly a decade, scholars from the humanities and the sciences just started to dig empirically into the sensation over the past four years. In this post, I will examine the phenomenon of ASMR, discuss its interpretation by scholars and explore how it can help student mental health.
What is ASMR?
ASMR is defined as “the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, tapping and hand movements.”1 My kindergarten ASMR experiences were not triggered simply by people helping me but how they helped me — tapping on keyboards, medical devices clicking and tapping, the combination of game piece clicks and soft-spoken instructions. At first pass, many people struggle to see the distinction between ASMR and simple bodily chills. According to researchers, the difference is that chills are “associated with excitement and physiological arousal,” while ASMR is often characterized as “relaxing and soothing,” an enjoyable phenomenon that both stimulates and calms.2
Because rigorous academic research on ASMR has begun only recently, popular and scientific opinion regarding the phenomenon has been somewhat variable. Individuals report that ASMR videos like Gentle Whispering’s help them fall asleep, soothe their depression and reduce their pain. Although the scientific community has been more skeptical, it has recently begun to explore the concept. Scientists are studying how ASMR affects both individuals and communities. First, scientific research has used techniques such as MRI, self-reports and placebo controls to understand how the body physically responds to ASMR videos and triggers.3 Such empirical research has supported the phenomenon’s existence. In their 2018 fMRI study, Lochte et. al. even saw it play out on screen with a unique pattern of neuronal activation4. Such studies open the door to further research on ASMR and its effects on the body.
A Unique Experience
Yet ASMR affects more than just individuals — it connects individual bodies to the other bodies and the world around them. To examine the interplay of ASMR and the community, science and technology studies researchers have examined such issues as ASMR video culture, online conversations about personal experiences and screen-mediated intimacy.4 This kind of intimacy is not sexual but interspatial and interpersonal. Sociologists Naomi Smith and Anne-Marie Snider have suggested that ASMR video producers deliberately create an aesthetically pleasing environment filled with sights, sounds and physical phenomena that draw boundaries between what is ASMR and what is not, particularly excluding sexuality and eroticism.5
As one example, Latte ASMR creates hourlong videos that focus on mundane experiences. Like many ASMRtists (the colloquial name for these video producers), Latte deliberately frames each experience as someone helping the viewer. She puts on your makeup, makes you tea and runs your bath, cuts your hair, performs lice checkups, even runs a piercing cafe and a tattoo shop. None of these actions are sexual or erotic. Rather, they are meant to soothe, to calm, to drive away your stress temporarily by providing you with aesthetics that give you tingles and positivity.
Research and ASMR: What's Next?
Fundamentally, ASMR is a unique experience that we are just beginning to understand, especially regarding how it promotes mental health. If you experience ASMR, you can employ it as a relaxation method. At the end of a stressful day, snuggle into pajamas and turn on an ASMR video while you do chores. In academia, we often forget how crucial such things are to our well-being. Watching these videos reminds us to take our days a little more slowly to appreciate the little actions we perform throughout the day. If you’re not sure if you can experience ASMR, give it a try, as up to 40% of all people have at least a mild response. If you cannot experience ASMR, I urge you to support those who can by engaging with the community and not dispelling the phenomenon as pseudoscience. Although studies are in the early stages, ASMR research has the potential to provide new insights into sensory neuroscience and mental health.
1Giulia Lara Poerio et. al., “More than a feeling: autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology,” PLOS ONE 13, 6 (June 2018), 1.
3Two examples are Mengjie Liu and Qiang Zhou, “A preliminary compilation of a digital video library on triggering autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR),” Frontiers in Psychology 2,274, 10 (October 2019); Bryson Lochte et.al., “An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR),” Bioimpacts 8, 4 (2018): 295–304.
4Two examples are Rob Gallagher, “Eliciting euphoria online: the aesthetics of ‘ASMR’ video culture,” Film Criticism 40, 2 (June 2016); Naomi Smith and Anne-Marie Snider, “ASMR, affect and digitally-mediated intimacy,” Emotion, Space, and Society 30 (February 2019): 41–48.
5Smith and Snider, “ASMR, affect and digitally-mediated intimacy.”
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