By Patricia McNeill
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a perceptual condition which can often be felt as an intense, pleasurable tingling feeling which begins at the scalp and often travels down the back and onto the arms and legs (Writer 2017, Smith, Katherine Fredborg, and Kornelsen 2016, Garro 2017, Fredborg, Clark, and Smith 2017). The triggering stimuli can be visual, auditory, or both, and often socially intimate in nature. Audio files and videos involving repetition of movements and/or sounds, such as scratching, whispering, brushes, nail tapping, drawing, and painting are popular forms of stimuli (Writer 2017, Smith, Katherine Fredborg, and Kornelsen 2016, Garro 2017, Fredborg, Clark, and Smith 2017). Since the initial appearance of ASMR in small online communities, these groups have expanded to include over 100,000 members in some circumstances, and yet, the phenomenon is not universal; only some people can experience this sensation freely at will, not everyone. For those who are capable of experiencing this sensation, a feeling of relaxation and peacefulness directly follows the tingling feeling, allowing some who suffer from anxiety to experience some relief through this practice (Barratt and Davis 2015, Garro 2017). Those who cannot create this experience, like myself, are left to wonder if there is something physiological that keeps them from success, or do we just need practice? This project will explore this phenomenon and attempt to discover why it can be so elusive to some, and effortless for others.
In October of 2007, an individual with a screen name of “okaywhatever” created a forum thread titled, “Weird sensation feels good” on steadyhealth.com, and by March of 2008, the first Whisper Channel was launched on You-Tube (University 2017). Over the next three years, more and more Facebook groups, Reddit threads, and dedicated websites discussing ASMR were created, and the popularity of these groups flourished, but it wasn’t until February of 2013 that true notoriety was achieved when Bryson Lochte at Dartmouth College began an MRI study on ASMR (University 2017). Today, there are six peer reviewed journal articles discussing the effects and implications of ASMR, and literally dozens of webpages and You-Tube channels.
In an attempt to gain access to more practitioners of ASMR, I contacted several individuals who I discovered on You-Tube and I posted messages on Whisper Community message boards, but finding someone who I could talk to and ask questions about how this process worked for them and what benefit they gained from the experience proved difficult. In the end, I was able to find someone who was willing to allow me to interview them, and I was lucky that we were able to meet in person and discuss this process. During my interview, “Bob” tried to teach me how to relax and allow the sensation to come over me, but I was unsuccessful. My biggest issue, we decided, was that I was too distracted by the visual aspect of the stimulation, so he suggested that I might try a strictly audio method to see if I could be successful in this way.
The next step in my research process was to explore all of the various blogs and informational web pages, such as ASMR University and ASMR Lab. These sites offered interesting facts and general information about how the community got started and helped me understand the applications of ASMR much more clearly. I realized that some of the more popular You-Tube videos had been viewed more than 14 million times, a true testament to the popularity of the practice. These sources also made it clear that there were several different genera within the Whisper Community that allows the listener to select one that will allow them more success. Most of the material I was able to discover with a simple “ASMR” search on You-Tube brought up videos that seem very popular, but I had a hard time watching these for very long. To be perfectly honest, they feel like the soft-core porn that used to be on cable channels after midnight. I can understand why these videos could be considered stimulating, but I wonder how much of the stimulation is actually from ASMR.
When it was time for me to make the recording that I had been planning, I decided that I would take “Bob’s” advice and create a simple audio recording instead of trying to do a video. I knew that I would not be comfortable being in a video, for one thing, and I was also curious to see if I could use some of the sounds that I enjoy to manifest the sensation in myself. I did my best to record the sounds that I had planned and isolate those sounds without any background interference. I mixed the sounds together using Audacity software and attempted to create a sound recording that could trigger ASMR. (Recording can be found here: ASMR Recording )
Finally, I used Google Scholar to help me find the articles from peer reviewed journals that might elaborate on the physiological manifestations of the sensation and discuss what makes it possible for some to experience ASMR, but not everyone.
For individuals who experience ASMR regularly, the sensation is therapeutic and instrumental in relieving anxiety. On average, “Bob” will spend two hours of every day in front of his computer watching one of his favorite ASMR channels or listening to a whisper recording. He tells me that one of his favorite pastimes when he was a child was to watch episodes of Bob Ross with his grandmother on Sunday afternoons. The soft-spoken Ross would narrate his movements as the sound of the soft brush strokes accompanied the narrative. It was during these Sunday afternoons that “Bob” first experienced ASMR with the relaxing bliss and sense of well-being the sensation compels. At the time, he did not understand why he felt so content and happy, and he did not know that the soft and gentle sounds were what was causing the physiological response that was manifesting these feelings.
As I was preforming research for this project, I discussed ASMR with my husband Mark and explained how the phenomenon worked. He knew exactly what I was talking about and started telling me how he used to have this happen all the time when he was young. Mark grew up in a very strict Baptist home where they attended church and bible study every Sunday without fail. When I described ASMR to him, he told me that he would always get this feeling during the church service when the pastor was giving his sermon. He could not really say what it was that would have triggered the episodes, but he was certain that it was not the Pastor’s words because he was rarely listening to them. I asked Mark if he still had these experiences because we do not regularly attend church, and he admitted that he did not and had not for many years. I asked him if he thought that it was because he did not go to church anymore, and he said that he thought it more likely to have to do with the medicine he has to take each day. Mark is a disabled veteran from the first Gulf War, so he hypothesized that it is probably the medicine blocking his ability to recreate the experience, not the fact that he wasn’t in church.
When I returned to my research, the very next paper I read had a section titled “Medications which affect ASMR”; individuals who were prescribed Clonazepam and antidepressants regularly reported that the medication impaired their ability to experience the sensation (Barratt and Davis 2015). Mark is taking both of these types of meds, so he is likely correct in his thinking. ASMR is reported to work positively on conditions such as anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, though the research is not clear as to how it works. The effectiveness of various triggers is subject to individual differences, though most who experience ASMR can be induced by the previously listed categories (Barratt and Davis 2015).
One sensation that I am sure I have experienced is when a particularly beautiful piece of music or special sentimental poem is read aloud produces what we call a “chill” and “goosebumps” on our arms and legs. Researches call that sensation a frisson and maintain that it is not the same thing as ASMR. To date, there is no scientific literature exploring whether ASMR and frisson are distant psycho-physiological responses, but the main difference, according to individuals familiar with both sensations describe frisson as a feeling associated with excitement and arousal, while ASMR is said to generate feelings of relaxation and contentment (del Campo and Kehle 2016). Another difference is the duration; frisson is usually described as a fleeting sensation of several seconds, while ASMR can last for many minutes (del Campo and Kehle 2016), and ASMR triggers are quite reliable, with the same videos or sounds consistently eliciting the sensation in the same individual (Smith, Katherine Fredborg, and Kornelsen 2016). ASMR relies primarily on the power of the whispered voice’s impression to create an intimate sonic space shared by the listener and the whisperer (Andersen 2015).
In the end, alas, I was not able to produce the phenomenon in myself, even using the audio recording of some of my favorite soft sounds, which “Bob” had recommended might work. The recording worked for him; he was able to successfully achieve the sensation using my audio recording, or perhaps he was just being nice. This, more than anything made me wonder: is ASMR something that you can experience is you happen to be born with the ability? Or is it something that someone can learn to do, such as seeing the hidden 3-D image in those magic pictures that just looked like a bunch of dots at first, but the magic image popped out at you once you figured out how to not look at it correctly? I do not think that researchers have answered this as of yet, but I believe they will in the near future.
Though I have experienced the feeling of a frisson on many occasions, ASMR remains elusive to me. I was surprised when the video of the drumline competition that my son was watching on You-Tube nearly produced an ASMR reaction in me; I experiences the goosebumps and chills feeling, but no sense of relaxation and bliss followed. The loud but sharp-sounding drums were very stimulating, and quite the opposite of the videos I have been watching for research. It made me wonder if there are different types of triggers for those who cannot get the usual ones to work. My interview and learning session with “Bob” did allow me to understand more fully exactly what kind of effect ASMR has on practitioners, and I must admit to being jealous of their ability to experience what appears to be blissful tranquility.
Andersen, Joceline. 2015. “Now you’ve got the shiveries: Affect, intimacy, and the ASMR whisper community.” Television & New Media 16 (8):683-700.
Barratt, Emma L, and Nick J Davis. 2015. “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): A flow-like mental state.” PeerJ 3:e851.
del Campo, Marisa A, and Thomas J Kehle. 2016. “Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) and frisson: Mindfully induced sensory phenomena that promote happiness.” International Journal of School & Educational Psychology 4 (2):99-105.
Fredborg, Beverley, Jim Clark, and Stephen D Smith. 2017. “An Examination of Personality Traits Associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).” Frontiers in psychology 8.
Garro, D. 2017. “Autonomous Meridian Sensory Response–from Internet subculture to audiovisual therapy.” Proceedings of the Electronic Visualisation and the Art Conference (EVA London 2017).
Smith, Stephen D, Beverley Katherine Fredborg, and Jennifer Kornelsen. 2016. “An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).” Social neuroscience:1-5.
University, ASMR. 2017. “ASMR University.” accessed May 11.
Writer, Staff. 2017. “ASMR Whisper Community.” accessed May 12.