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Science with Sam: What is ASMR?

Take a minute to imagine this sentence being whispered into your ear. If that thought elicits a tingle around the neck, you may have experienced autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR. This strange sensation triggered by, among other things, whispering, card shuffling or chewing noises can induce relaxation in viewers and videos online attract millions of views. But what exactly is going on in our brain? In this week’s Science with Sam we look at the science of ASMR.

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Video transcript

Hello.

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It’s lovely to see you.

Relax.

This is the science of ASMR.

You may have seen videos of people whispering, tapping glasses and even eating very close to microphones. These channels can amass millions of loyal subscribers and you might have wondered, what is going on here?!

This is a world where people come to drift off to sleep, relax and experience the sensation of ASMR.

Autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR is a strange sensation some people get when they watch stimulating videos or take part in other activities which often involve close personal attention.

Sadly, I’m not one of these people, but those who are lucky enough to experience ASMR describe it as a tingle starting around the neck, spreading across the shoulders and back, or a brain massage.

Some people say it’s similar to the feeling of using one of these (head scratcher things).

Different people have different triggers for the sensation. For some it’s watching someone play with a deck of cards, and for some chewing noises or “mouth sounds” put them in a state of intense relaxation. Others find their brain tingles from roleplay or scenes like this…

But the sound of whispering is the most common ASMR trigger, followed by the feeling of someone you love caring personally for you such as stroking your hair or face. But what’s actually going on here? And is there any science behind it?

Despite its undoubted popularity, nobody actually knows what ASMR is yet, although there are many theories. It’s been compared to synaesthesia – a condition where a person experiences a mix up in sensory information – for these people words may take on a certain colour, or music might evoke a particular taste or texture. But this doesn’t quite fit the description of ASMR.

A more promising comparison is something known as ‘frisson’ – sometimes called musical chills. This sensation is triggered by an emotional experience like powerful music and sends a shivery electric like feeling through a person’s body.

People often confuse ASMR and frisson – but ASMR lacks the shivery, electric element. A 2016 review of studies looking at the two sensations argued that perhaps ASMR is relaxing while frisson is arousing.

One study used functional MRI to monitor brain activity in 10 ASMR-sensitive people as they watched videos that trigger the sensation. The scans showed significant activation in parts of the brain linked with reward and emotional arousal. Similar patterns are seen in frisson, suggesting the two sensations are indeed related.

But ASMR videos don’t work for everyone, which raises the question, what’s different about the people who are susceptible?

Psychological studies have found that people who get ASMR have higher scores on openness-to-experience and neuroticism, and lower levels of conscientiousness, extroversion and agreeableness.

It’s possible that there is some underlying genetics that makes people both susceptible to ASMR and neuroticism, but the jury is still currently out. It could be that people who are open to new experiences are more willing to try odd-sounding videos.

Are you an ASMR junkie? Let us know in the comments.

And if you want to learn more about how your brain works, New Scientist is the magazine for you. Use the link in this video to get a special 20 per cent discount.

For those who do experience it, ASMR has real and measurable effects.

One study monitored people’s heart rate and skin conductance – a measure of emotional arousal – while they watched ASMR videos. Everyone’s heart rates slowed, but in people who experience ASMR, it slowed more. Unexpectedly they found that skin conductance increased indicating increased emotional arousal.

Some have suggested that ASMR may be to do with social connections and emotional bonding. A study found that the brain activation sparked by ASMR is similar to what we see in people and animals experiencing friendly behaviour. It’s been compared to the great apes grooming each other. They receive close personal attention from another ape – and this pastime seems to be greatly rewarding to them.

Studies have also found that people report greater feelings of social connection after ASMR. Maybe it is an intense version of the feeling we all get when loved ones tend to us – and these videos can be a shortcut to it.

But this satisfying sensation may not last. People have increasingly reported that their experience of ASMR is diminishing when they watch too many videos. The phenomenon has been dubbed “ASMR immunity” and it’s a bit like when drug users require larger doses to get the same high.

But taking a break can bring back the pleasant sensations just as substance users take a break to bring back a drug’s effects.

Whatever the explanation, watching ASMR videos can give those who experience it an amazing elevation in mood that persists for hours after. And whilst it’s no replacement for that feel-good factor we get from being with our close friends and family, it can be a handy shortcut for some.

And who couldn’t do with a bit more pleasure in our lives, right now?

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