Swapna Krishna

Feb 11th 2022

What Is ASMR, and Why Does It Captivate the Human Brain?


ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is everywhere right now. ASMR videos, podcasts and music have seemingly taken over the internet — the acronym was even added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in September 2020.

But what is ASMR? Why is it so appealing, and what makes it so satisfying to the human brain? Conversely, why are there some people who find ASMR upsetting? Let’s dive into the ins and outs of autonomous sensory meridian response and how it affects our brains.

What Is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is the term used to describe a specific sensation people feel. According to Vox, it’s often characterized as “‘tingles’ that run through the back of someone’s head and spine” after experiencing certain audio or visual sensations.

If that sounds vague, that’s because ASMR isn’t well-defined; ASMR triggers are often defined as such if they produce a reaction, and not everyone reacts the same to each trigger. It’s important to note that ASMR does not produce a sexual reaction, though it’s often described as a “brain orgasm.”

ASMR can be as simple as a person whispering, a scalp massage, turning pages of books or spraying a water bottle. They can also be videos of role-playing mundane activities — being treated by a doctor, getting a facial or being measured for a garment by a tailor.

According to The New York Times, YouTube is currently the place to go if you’re looking to try out ASMR for yourself.

What Is the Science Behind Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response?

Interestingly, many consider ASMR a pseudoscience — a result of drugs or the reactions of people who are looking for intimacy. However, an examination from Scientific American reveals that ASMR is real, but only for a select group of people.

In a study published in PLOS ONE in 2018, researchers discovered that ASMR videos do promote calmness and excitement, reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance levels after watching ASMR videos, but these changes were only present in people who were affected by ASMR. The study concluded, “Hundreds of thousands of people watch ASMR videos and anecdotally report that these videos help them to sleep, relax and combat stress and anxiety. Our results are consistent with the idea that ASMR videos regulate emotion and may have therapeutic benefit for those that experience ASMR.”

In another study published in the journal BioImpacts, researchers used functional MRIs to look at the brain during ASMR experiences. They found that ASMR directly affected regions of the brain associated with rewards and emotional arousal. Clearly, for those who are affected by ASMR, the process triggers something in these regions of their brains.

Why Does ASMR Affect People Differently?

Some people swear by ASMR; however, it seems that most people aren’t affected by it at all. But there are also others who can’t stand the sounds or experiences of ASMR. Such is the case for people with misophonia, a sensitivity to sound that affects around 20% of the population, according to Popular Science. People who have been diagnosed with misophonia have disproportionately negative responses to ordinary sounds, such as chewing and swallowing. It creates a fight-or-flight response, raising the heart rate, which is the opposite effect that ASMR has on people who love it.

Interestingly, there may be a connection between those affected by misophonia and ASMR, even though they produce opposite responses in people. In a study published in PeerJ, participants who self-identified as ASMR sensitive scored higher on the Misophonia Questionnaire (a tool doctors use to diagnose patients with misophonia) than those who were not ASMR sensitive. This could indicate that people who enjoy ASMR may also have misophonia, a sensitivity to sound — but their reaction to it is just very different.

What Might the Future Hold for ASMR?

While ASMR has entered the mainstream of technology and pop culture, it’s likely to remain a niche for now, simply because not everyone is affected by it and because some who are affected by it have strongly negative reactions.

But consider the future: What is ASMR going to look like as more technologies progress? The advent of tech such as virtual reality (VR) could hold promise, thanks to its ability to increase the intimacy and sensation of ASMR. People are already starting to explore what might this be able to do for ASMR, and the demand for VR is high.

Until that happens, though, ASMR devotees still have thousands of videos to scroll through on YouTube, with hundreds of new ones being added each day.

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