Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), sometimes auto sensory meridian response, is a tingling sensation that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. A pleasant form of paresthesia, it has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia and may overlap with frisson.
ASMR signifies the subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin". It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attention control. A genre of videos which intend to induce ASMR has emerged, of which by 2018 over 13 million are published on YouTube.
While many colloquial and formal terms used and proposed between 2007 and 2010 included reference to orgasm, there was during that time a significant majority objection to its use among those active in online discussions, many of whom have continued to persist in differentiating the euphoric and relaxing nature of ASMR from sexual arousal. However, the argument for sexual arousal persists, and some proponents have published videos categorized as ASMRotica (ASMR erotica), which are deliberately designed to be sexually stimulating.
Early proponents of ASMR concluded that the phenomenon was generally unrelated to sexual arousal. In 2010, Jennifer Allen, a participant in an online forum, proposed that the phenomenon be named "autonomous sensory meridian response". Allen chose the words intending or assuming them to have the following specific meanings:
- Autonomous – spontaneous, self-governing, with or without control
- Sensory – about the senses or sensation
- Meridian – signifying a peak, climax, or point of highest development
- Response – referring to an experience triggered by something external or internal
Allen verified in a 2016 interview that she purposely selected these terms because they were more objective, comfortable, and clinical than alternative terms for the sensation. In that interview, Allen explained she selected the word meridian to replace the word orgasm and said she had found a dictionary that defined meridian as "a point or period of highest development, greatest prosperity, or the like".
The subjective experience, sensation, and perceptual phenomenon of ASMR is described by some of those susceptible to it as "akin to a mild electrical current...or the carbonated bubbles in a glass of champagne". The tingling sensation on the skin in general, called paresthesia, is referred to by ASMR enthusiasts as "tingles" when experienced along the scalp, neck, and back. It has been described as "a static tingling sensation originating from the back of the head, then propagating to the neck, shoulder, arm, spine, and legs, which makes people feel relaxed and alert".
Though little scientific research has been conducted into potential neurobiological correlates to the perceptual phenomenon, with a consequent dearth of data with which to explain its physical nature, personal commentary from forums, blogs, and video comments have been analyzed to describe the phenomenon. Analysis of this anecdotal evidence has supported the original consensus that ASMR is euphoric but non-sexual, and has divided those who experience ASMR into two broad categories of subjects. One category depends upon external triggers to experience the localized sensation and its associated feelings, which typically originates in the head, often reaching down the neck and sometimes the upper back. The other category can intentionally augment the sensation and feelings through attentional control, without dependence upon external stimuli, or 'triggers', in a manner compared by some subjects to their experience of meditation.
ASMR is usually precipitated by stimuli referred to as 'triggers'. ASMR triggers, which are most commonly auditory and visual, may be encountered through the interpersonal interactions of daily life. Additionally, ASMR is often triggered by exposure to specific audio and video. Such media may be specially made with the specific purpose of triggering ASMR or created for other purposes and later discovered to be effective as a trigger of the experience.
Stimuli that can trigger ASMR, as reported by those who experience it, include the following:
- Listening to a softly spoken or whispering voice
- Listening to quiet, repetitive sounds resulting from someone engaging in a mundane task such as turning the pages of a book
- Watching somebody attentively execute a mundane task such as preparing food
- Loudly chewing, crunching, slurping or biting foods, drinks, or gum
- Receiving personal attention
- Initiating the stimulus through conscious manipulation without the need for external video or audio triggers
- Listening to tapping, typically nails onto surfaces such as plastic, wood, paper, metal, etc.
- Hand movements, especially onto one's face
- Listening to certain types of music
- Listening to a person blow or exhale into a microphone
A 2017 study of 130 survey respondents found that lower-pitched, complex sounds, and slow-paced, detail-focused videos are especially effective triggers.
Psychologists Nick Davis and Emma Barratt discovered that whispering was an effective trigger for 75% of the 475 subjects who took part in an experiment to investigate the nature of ASMR; this statistic is reflected in the popularity of intentional ASMR videos that comprise someone speaking in a whispered voice.
Many of those who experience ASMR report that non-vocal ambient noises performed through human activities are also effective triggers of ASMR. Examples of such noises include fingers scratching or tapping a surface, brushing hair, hands rubbing together or manipulating fabric, the crushing of eggshells, the crinkling and crumpling of a flexible material such as paper, or writing. Many YouTube videos that are intended to trigger ASMR responses feature a single person performing these actions and the sounds that result.
Personal attention role play
In addition to the effectiveness of specific auditory stimuli, many subjects report that ASMR is triggered by the receipt of tender personal attention, often comprising combined physical touch and vocal expression, such as when having their hair cut, nails painted, ears cleaned, or back massaged, whilst the service provider speaks quietly to the recipient.
Furthermore, many of those who have experienced ASMR during these and other comparable encounters with a service provider report that watching an "ASMRtist" simulate the provision of such personal attention, acting directly to the camera as if the viewer were the recipient of a simulated service, is sufficient to trigger it.
Psychologists Nick Davis and Emma Barratt discovered that personal attention was an effective trigger for 69% of the 475 subjects who participated in a study conducted at Swansea University, second in popularity only to whispering.
Clinical role play
Among the category of intentional ASMR videos that simulate the provision of personal attention is a subcategory wherein the "ASMRtist" is specifically depicted providing clinical or medical services, including routine general medical examinations. The creators of these videos make no claims to the reality of what is depicted, and the viewer is intended to be aware that they are watching and listening to a simulation, performed by an artist. Nonetheless, many viewers attribute therapeutic outcomes to these and other categories of intentional ASMR videos, and there are voluminous anecdotal reports of their effectiveness in inducing sleep for those susceptible to insomnia, and assuaging a range of symptoms, including those associated with depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
In the first peer-reviewed article on ASMR, published in Perspectives in Biology in summer 2013, Nitin Ahuja, who was at the time of publication a medical resident at the University of Virginia, invited conjecture on whether the receipt of simulated medical attention might have some tangible therapeutic value for the recipient, comparing the purported positive outcome of clinical roleplay ASMR videos with the themes of the novel Love in the Ruins by author and physician Walker Percy, published in 1971.
The story follows Tom More, a psychiatrist living in a dystopian future who develops a device called the Ontological Lapsometer that, when traced across the scalp of a patient, detects the neurochemical correlation to a range of disturbances. In the course of the novel, More admits that the "mere application of his device" to a patient's body "results in the partial relief of his symptoms".
Ahuja alleges that through the character of Tom More, as depicted in Love in the Ruins, Percy "displays an intuitive understanding of the diagnostic act as a form of therapy unto itself". Ahuja asks whether similarly, the receipt of simulated personal clinical attention by an actor in an ASMR video might afford the listener and viewer some relief.
Those experiencing ASMR have higher Big Five personality trait scores in openness-to-experience and neuroticism, but lower conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. ASMR intensity is correlated with the openness-to-experience and neuroticism traits. The sensory and emotional experience of ASMR overlaps with and may be partially explained by characteristics associated with mindfulness.
In December 2012, Craig Richard – a blogger on the subject of ASMR – published the first results of a poll comprising 12 questions that had received 161 respondents, followed by second results in August 2015 by which time there were 477 responses.
In August 2014, Craig Richard, Jennifer Allen, and Karissa Burnett published a survey at SurveyMonkey that was reviewed by Shenandoah University Institutional Review Board and the Fuller Theological Seminary School of Psychology Human Studies Review Committee. In September 2015, when the survey had received 13,000 responses, the publishers announced that they were analyzing the data with the intent to publish the results. No such publication or report is yet available.
Background and history
The contemporary history of ASMR began on 19 October 2007 on a discussion forum for health-related subjects at a website called Steady Health. A 21-year-old registered user with the handle "okaywhatever" submitted a post describing having experienced a specific sensation since childhood, comparable to that stimulated by tracing fingers along the skin, yet often triggered by seemingly random and unrelated non-haptic events, such as "watching a puppet show" or "being read a story".
Replies to this post indicated that a significant number of other people had experienced the sensation which "okaywhatever" described - also in response to witnessing mundane events. The interchanges precipitated the formation of a number of web-based locations intended to facilitate further discussion and analysis of the phenomenon for which there were plentiful anecdotal accounts, yet no consensus-agreed name nor any scientific data or explanation.
Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz suggests that a passage from the novel Mrs Dalloway authored by Virginia Woolf and published in 1925, describes something distinctly comparable. In the passage from Mrs Dalloway cited by Setz, a nursemaid speaks to the man who is her patient "deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper's, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound".
According to Setz, this citation generally alludes to the effectiveness of the human voice and soft or whispered vocal sounds specifically as a trigger of ASMR for many of those who experience it, as demonstrated by the responsive comments posted to YouTube videos that depict someone speaking softly or whispering, typically directly to the camera.
There are no known sources for any evolutionary origins for ASMR since it has yet to be identified as having biological correlations. Even so, a significant majority of descriptions of ASMR by those who experience it compare the sensation to that precipitated by receipt of tender physical touch, providing examples such as having their hair cut or combed. This has led to the conjecture that ASMR might be related to the act of grooming.
"[The 'ASMR effect' is] clearly strongly related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention [and has a] strong similarity to physical grooming in primates [who] derive enormous pleasure (bordering on euphoria) when being groomed by a grooming partner...not to get clean, but rather to bond with each other."
Imaging subjects' brains with fMRI as they reported experiencing ASMR tingles suggests support for this hypothesis, because brain areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex (associated with social behaviors including grooming), and the secondary somatosensory cortex (associated with the sensation of touch) were activated more strongly during tingle periods than control periods.
The most popular source of stimuli reported by subjects to be effective in triggering ASMR is video. Videos reported being effective in triggering ASMR generally fall into two categories: "Intentional"' and "Unintentional". Intentional media is created by those known as "ASMRtists" to trigger ASMR in viewers and listeners. Unintentional media is that made for other reasons, often before attention was drawn to the phenomenon in 2007, but which some subjects discover to be effective in triggering ASMR. One example of unintentional media is of painter Bob Ross. In episodes of his television series The Joy of Painting both broadcast and on YouTube, his soft, gentle speaking mannerisms and the sound of his painting and his tools trigger the effect in some viewers. The work of stop-motion filmmaker PES is also often noted.
Some ASMR video creators use binaural recording techniques to simulate the acoustics of a three-dimensional environment, reported to elicit in viewers and listeners the experience of being in proximity to actor and vocalist. Binaural recordings are usually made using two microphones, just like stereo recordings. However, in binaural recordings, the two microphones tend to be more specially designed to mimic ears on humans. In many cases, microphones are separated the same distance as ears are on humans, and microphones are surrounded by ear-shaped cups to get similar reverb as human ears.
Viewing and hearing such ASMR videos that comprise ambient sound captured through binaural recording has been compared to the reported effect of listening to binaural beats, which are also alleged to precipitate pleasurable sensations and the subjective experience of calm and equanimity.
Binaural recordings are made specifically to be heard through headphones rather than loudspeakers. When listening to sound through loudspeakers, the left and right ear can both hear the sound coming from both speakers. In contrast, when listening to sound through headphones, the sound from the left earpiece is audible only to the left ear, and the sound from the right earpiece is audible only to the right ear. In producing binaural media, the sound source is recorded by two separate microphones, placed at a distance comparable to that between two ears, and they are not mixed, but remain separate on the final medium, whether video or audio.
Listening to a binaural recording through headphones simulates the binaural hearing by which people listen to live sounds. For the listener, this experience is characterized by two perceptions. Firstly, the listener perceives themself as being near the performers and location of the sound source. Secondly, the listener perceives what is often reported as a three-dimensional sound. This means the listener can perceive both the position and distance of the source of sound relative to them.
Scientific research and commentary
Several peer-reviewed articles about ASMR have been published. The first, by the physician Nitin Ahuja, is titled "It Feels Good to Be Measured: clinical role-play, Walker Percy, and the tingles". It was published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine in 2013 and focused on a conjectural cultural and literary analysis.
Another article, published in the journal Television and New Media in November 2014, is by Joceline Andersen, a doctoral student in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, who suggested that ASMR videos comprising whispering "create an intimate sonic space shared by the listener and the whisperer". Andersen's article proposes that the pleasure jointly shared by both an ASMR video creator and its viewers might be perceived as a particular form of "non-standard intimacy" by which consumers pursue a form of pleasure mediated by video media. Andersen suggests that such pursuit is private yet also public or publicized through the sharing of experiences via online communication with others within the "whispering community".
Another article, "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state", by Nick Davis and Emma Barratt, lecturer and post-graduate researcher, respectively, in the Department of Psychology at Swansea University, was published in PeerJ. This article aimed to "describe the sensations associated with ASMR, explore the ways in which it is typically induced in capable individuals...to provide further thoughts on where this sensation may fit into current knowledge on atypical perceptual experiences...and to explore the extent to which engagement with ASMR may ease symptoms of depression and chronic pain". The paper was based on a study of 245 men, 222 women, and 8 individuals of non-binary gender, aged from 18 to 54 years, all of whom had experienced ASMR and regularly consumed ASMR media, from which the authors concluded and suggested that "given the reported benefits of ASMR in improving mood and pain symptoms...ASMR warrants further investigation as a potential therapeutic measure similar to that of meditation and mindfulness".
An article titled "An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)" by Stephen D. Smith, Beverley Katherine Fredborg, and Jennifer Kornelsen, looked at the default mode network (DMN) in individuals with ASMR. The study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), concluded that there were significant differences in the DMN of individuals who have ASMR as compared to a control group without ASMR.
The first study to perform fMRI brain activity imaging on subjects experiencing ASMR (as opposed to merely those able to experience the phenomenon) was published in BioImpacts in September 2018. Subjects viewed several ASMR videos with a screen and headphones while inside the MRI scanner. The study found a significant difference in brain activation between periods when the subject reported tingling (communicated by pressing a button), as compared to periods when they were watching a video but not reporting tingling (communicated by pressing a different button, to control for brain activation effects caused by merely pressing a button). They concluded that "the brain regions found most active during the tingling sensations were the nucleus accumbens, mPFC, insula and secondary somatosensory cortex", and suggested that these were similar to "activation of brain regions previously observed during experiences like social bonding and musical frisson".
A 2019 fMRI study reported that ASMR videos produce activity in brain areas related to sensation, emotion, and attention in subjects experiencing ASMR, including the right cingulate gyrus and cortical regions related to audition, movement, and vision such as the right paracentral lobule and bilateral thalamus, compared to control subjects without ASMR experiences, who showed greater activity in the lingula and culmen of the cerebellum.
Several scientists have published or made public their reaction to and opinions of ASMR. On 12 March 2012, Steven Novella, Director of General Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine, published a post about ASMR on his blog Neurologica. Regarding the question of whether ASMR is a real phenomenon, Novella said "In this case, I don't think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is. Several people seem to have independently experienced and described" it with "fairly specific details. In this way it's similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history". Novella tentatively posited the possibilities that ASMR might be either a type of pleasurable seizure or another way to activate the "pleasure response". However, Novella drew attention to the lack of scientific investigation into ASMR, suggesting that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation technologies should be used to study the brains of people who experience ASMR in comparison to people who do not, as a way of beginning to seek scientific understanding and explanation of the phenomenon.
Four months after Novella's blog post, Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive sciences at the University of Sheffield, was reported to have said that ASMR "might well be a real thing, but it's inherently difficult to research...something like this that you can't see or feel" and "doesn't happen for everyone". Stafford compared the current status of ASMR with the development of attitudes toward synesthesia, which he said "for years...was a myth, then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it".
Comparisons and associations with other phenomena
Integral to the subjective experience of ASMR is a localized tingling sensation that many describe as similar to being gently touched, but which is stimulated by watching and listening to video media in the absence of any physical contact with another person.
These reports have precipitated comparison between ASMR and synesthesia – a condition characterized by the excitation of one sensory modality by stimuli that normally exclusively stimulates another, as when the hearing of a specific sound induces the visualization of a distinct color, a type of synesthesia called chromesthesia. Thereby, people with other types of synesthesia report for example 'seeing sounds' in the case of auditory-visual synesthesia, or 'tasting words' in the case of lexical-gustatory synesthesia.
In the case of ASMR, many report the perception of 'being touched' by the sights and sounds presented on a video recording, comparable to visual-tactile and auditory-tactile synesthesia.
Some people have sought to relate ASMR to misophonia, which means the 'hatred of sound', but manifests typically as 'automatic negative emotional reactions to particular sounds – the opposite of what can be observed in reactions to specific audio stimuli in ASMR'.
For example, those who suffer from misophonia often report that specific human sounds, including those made by eating, breathing, whispering, or repetitive tapping noises, can precipitate feelings of anger and disgust, in the absence of any previously learned associations that might otherwise explain those reactions.
There are plentiful anecdotal reports by those who claim to have both misophonia and ASMR at multiple web-based user-interaction and discussion locations. Common to these reports is the experience of ASMR to some sounds, and misophonia in response to others.
The French word 'frisson' signifies a brief sensation usually reported as pleasurable and often expressed as an overwhelming emotional response to stimuli, such as a piece of music. Frisson often occurs simultaneously with piloerection, colloquially known as 'goosebumps', by which tiny muscles called arrector pili contract, causing body hair, particularly that on the limbs and back of the neck, to erect or 'stand on end'.
Although ASMR and frisson are "interrelated in that they appear to arise through similar physiological mechanisms", individuals who have experienced both describe them as qualitatively different, with different kinds of triggers. A 2018 fMRI study showed that the major brain regions already known to be activated in frisson are also activated in ASMR, and suggests that "the similar pattern of activation of both ASMR and frisson could explain their subjective similarities, such as their short duration and tingling sensation".
People who experience ASMR report feeling relaxed and sleepy after watching and listening to ASMR content. While some journalists and commentators have portrayed ASMR as intimate, they go on to say there is no evidence of any connection between ASMR and sexual arousal.
In pop culture
Berlin-based artist Claire Tolan is a contemporary artist working with ASMR, having produced works for the CTM Festival, collaborated with noted composer Holly Herndon, and exhibited widely in North America and Europe. She has been working consistently in this genre since 2013.
British artist Lucy Clout's single channel video 'Shrugging Offing', made for exhibition in March 2013, uses the model of online ASMR broadcasts as the basis for a work exploring the female body.
The first digital arts installation specifically inspired by ASMR was by the American artist Julie Weitz and called Touch Museum, which opened at the Young Projects Gallery on 13 February 2015 and comprised video screenings distributed throughout seven rooms.
The music for Julie Weitz' Touch Museums digital art installation was composed by Benjamin Wynn under his pseudonym 'Deru' and was the first musical composition specifically created for live ASMR arts event.
Subsequently, artists Sophie Mallett and Marie Toseland created 'a live binaural sound work' composed of ASMR triggers, broadcast by Resonance FM, the listings for which advised the audience to 'listen with headphones for the full sensory effect'.
On 18 May 2015, contemporary composer Holly Herndon released an album called Platform which included a collaboration with artist Claire Tolan named "Lonely At The Top", intended to trigger ASMR.
The track "Brush" from Holly Pester's 2016 album and poetry collection Common Rest featured artist Claire Tolan, exploring ASMR and its relation to lullaby.
The hair-cutting scene of the film Battle of the Sexes deliberately included several ASMR triggers. Director Jonathan Dayton stated "People work to make videos that elicit this response [...] and we were wondering, 'Could we get that response in a theater full of people?'"
There have been three successfully crowdfunded projects, each based on proposals to make a film about ASMR: two documentaries and one fictional piece. None of these films have been completed. A short documentary about ASMR, Tertiary Sound, was selected to be screened at BFI London Film Festival in 2019.
On 31 July 2015, the BBC panel show Would I Lie To You? featured an ASMR content maker as a guest as part of the "This is my" round, which resulted in the reveal of the person connected to comedian Joe Lycett.
During Super Bowl LIII in 2019, Anheuser-Busch broadcast an ASMR-themed commercial for its Michelob Ultra Pure Gold beer, where Zoë Kravitz uses ASMR techniques including whispering and tapping on a Pure Gold bottle into two microphones. Rolling Stone described the commercial as an example of ASMR "[going] mainstream".
On 16 May 2019 episode of the CBS All Access series The Good Fight, titled "The One About the End of the World", a law firm uses ASMR-style presentations to try to get through to a judge when they discover he is an avid follower of the phenomenon.
In an episode of Criminal Minds (season 14 episode 12 entitled "Hamelin"), the BAU team hunts for an unknown suspect who uses ASMR to (almost) hypnotize children to leave their homes in the middle of the night to come to meet up and voluntarily get into his van. Dr. Spencer Reid is sent a video from the unknown suspect of him making the auditory recording that he then plays from his van outside each child's house to lure them out.
In episode 5 of the sketch show Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show, there is a sketch about an ASMR award show.
In season 7, episode 8 (”The Takeback") of the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jake Peralta pretends to be an excessively soft-spoken and famous ASMRtist, helping pull off a reverse heist to put back stolen gems.
In 2020, in the R series of QI, the episode "Rest and Recreation" featured a tidbit on playing with slime, or watching others play with it, as a form of relaxation, mentioning ASMR as an induced effect.
Fictional and creative literature
In March 2013, the American weekly hour-long radio program This American Life, broadcast the first short story on the subject of ASMR, called A Tribe Called Rest, authored and read by American novelist and screenwriter Andrea Seigel.
His hands changing the lenses again, fingers on my chin, on my temples, slow and soft, yes, a soft sensation, a wave rising along my skull, shrinking my scalp… a process of head-shrinking… my head, my brain, his fingers, letters… the absolute calm of the process (…) A soft, regular motion, something unbroken, which goes on, swinging, sleepy, to and fro, rocking… When I was little, at school, the teacher’s voice, creeping to the very top of my skull, my limp hands…
In 2018, Dr Craig Richard, founder of ASMRUniversity.com, published his book Brain Tingles.
ASMR was also gained more attention among the Japanese culture, in which it shows the slow and steady mainstreaming of ASMR content in Japan. A Japanese YouTuber, Yukino Yumijuku, has created 78 YouTube videos associated with the phenomenon for her channel "Japanese ASMR", that includes few of the traditional Japanese elements such as Shamisen and Tsuzumi.
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