Their popularity stems from a 'brain-tingling' sensation called ASMR. Sounds strange, but a new study shows this YouTube phenomenon could rival mindfulness
Type ‘ASMR’ into your YouTube search bar and you could be in for a bit of a shock.
The list of suggested videos range from ‘Close-up face touching’ to ‘Random role play’ and ‘Intense tingles’ and they've all racked up hundreds of thousands and even millions of views. But not for the reasons that you may think. People are increasingly tuning into these bizarrely named PG-rated videos for their de-stressing, sleep-inducing and mood-boosting abilities. And now a new study by the University of Sheffield is adding weight to anecdotal evidence from users who rave about their power to relax and help them nod off. ASMR, it seems, can have the same physiological and psychological benefits as relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, and similarly to bedtime stories for adults , their popularity shows no signs of slowing down.
What is ASMR?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is the sensation some people experience as a result of certain sights and sounds such as whispering, paper turning, folding towels and hair brushing. It is characterised by tingling of the skin (commonly called ‘brain tingles’ and even, ‘braingasms’) that start at the crown of the head and work their way down the spine and lead to increased feelings of calm and relaxation.
There are more than 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube but despite its popularity, the research into the science behind it has remained rather scarce since American Jennifer Allen coined the term back in 2010 when she started a Facebook group on the topic. However, a new study has added credibility to its purported mental and physical health benefits and there’s also a new book on the subject due to be released in September too - Brain Tingles by Craig Richard PhD, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences and founder of ASMRUniversity.com. Having experienced ASMR since childhood, he set up the website in 2014 to report about the developments in its research and provide a helpful hub of resources for those interested in trying it.
With these new developments in mind, it’s clear that there’s more to this relaxation technique than meets the eye. From the triggers to the misconceptions an ‘ASMR artist’ want you to know about, here’s your ‘brain tingle’ cheat-sheet.
Not everyone experiences ASMR
Some people are more sensitive to experiencing ASMR than others and this could be down to a range of factors. One of them, as suggested by a study by the University of Winnipeg, Canada, is differences in brain activity and a reduced ability in those who experience ASMR to block out sensory-emotional experiences.
Other reasons given are genetics, the sensitivity of our endorphin receptors and differences in the amounts of feel good hormones and chemicals that each of us releases in response to a given stimulus.
There are a range of triggers
To experience ASMR, you need to have a trigger. These vary from person to person and range from sights to sounds and touch and can be done alone or with another person. Common auditory triggers include whispering, tapping and the crinkling of paper; visual ones include watching someone have their hair brushed or unboxing an item; tactile stimuli includes hair touching and massage.
As mentioned above, not everyone experiences ASMR however, the key to finding out if you are able to is by trying a wide variety of ASMR trigger types. A good starting point is YouTuber and ASMRtist Emma Smith’s, '22 ASMR Triggers video' – which is in fact, her most viewed upload.
“Awareness of ASMR is growing so quickly right now, so these kind of videos are really helpful to discover which sounds work for you,” she tells us. “It also doesn't have any speaking so there is no language barrier - I love the idea of communicating that much to viewers through just sound. It's so powerful.”
It stimulates the body’s bonding responses
A large part of why ASMR is so effective in helping us de-stress and increase the likelihood of getting a better night’s sleep is the connection of many of its triggers with bonding behaviours. As Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services for AXA PPP Healthcare points out: “The soft sounds and whispering associated with ASMR might be directly linked with parent and infant bonding, involving soft and caring vocal tones and focused attention, which in turn can help to create a sense of trust, closeness and emotional security, through the release of certain hormones.” These chemicals and hormones include oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
“These are sometimes known as the ‘bonding hormones’, or ‘love, drugs’ due to their importance when forming close friendships and relationships,” explains Dr Winwood. “ASMR can therefore induce a relaxed, safe and emotionally supported feeling in its listeners, ultimately aiding with sleep.”
In fact, so convinced is the healthcare company with the sleep-inducing abilities of ASMR, that they’ve collaborated with WhispersRed to create a 30-minute relaxation soundtrack to boost both the duration and quality of your slumber.
Emma recommends sitting comfortably or snuggled up in bed, wearing head or earphones to get the most out of your ASMR experience. Patience is also important. “I like to watch the first half of a video until I feel calm and sleepy,” she tells us. “My mind tends to empty quite quickly once I become immersed in the sounds and visuals. Then I place my device away from my head face down and fall asleep to the sound in the background.”
It rivals mindfulness
The recent University of Sheffield study was carried out on people claiming to experience ASMR. Participants experienced a drop in heart rate of about 3.14 beats per minute and also reported significant increases in positive emotions and feelings of social connection too.
Report author Dr Giulia Poeria hopes the findings will encourage further scientific research into ASMR. "It would be really interesting to look at the potential benefits of ASMR for relieving insomnia, anxiety and depression but there needs to be loads more research including clinical trials," she said . "However, this is a really good step in understanding ASMR and legitimising it as something people experience."
It’s not just for before bed
Although ASMR helps boost relaxation and therefore sleep, its benefits aren’t confined to the bedroom. “It's entirely up to the experiencer and depends on what you’re using the video for,” says Emma. “For instance, if you're having a stressful day at work and need to take a small break to centre yourself, a quick moment listening to some sounds or watching your favourite content creator smiling at you can be all you need to refocus.”
It’s not meant to be sexual
Despite what the names of the videos and the ‘braingasm’ associations suggest, the pleasure responses the videos evoke in their viewers aren’t sexual. A common misconception that Emma is glad to see start to fade away. “I have spent years explaining that ASMR is not sexual because for people who have never seen an ASMR video or don't experience the feeling, it can look odd,” she says.
“However now we have new research published which proves the heart rate lowers when experiencing ASMR, that job is so much easier. The heart rate lowers during relaxation not sexual arousal.”
ASMRUniversity.com actually likens the sensation to post-coital activity, a stage called ‘resolution.’ “This phase involves muscle relaxation, feelings of well-being, increased desire for and enjoyment from light caressing, increased sleepiness, and an overall lack of sexual desire.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to think of it as a brain comedown than a climax.
Read more: 15 ways to get a better night’s sleep