Humans find pleasure in many different things, and sound is one of them. While certain sounds like dogs barking, car horns blaring and babies crying trigger a stressful response in our bodies, other sounds like waves crashing and gentle rain can provide a more soothing and relaxing effect. In my case, growing up I loved to listen to the sound of my grandmother tapping her long nails on the table while she was playing solitaire, as well as the sound of gum being chewed.
It may sound a bit strange, but later in life I learned that this is actually known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), which is a physical sensation characterized by a pleasurable tingling that starts in the head and scalp and often moves down the spine and through the limbs, providing a sense of relaxation and comfort in the listener. There is an ASMR community that has grown in popularity on both YouTube and on the radio, which is comprised of people who share in this common enjoyment, and they create and watch videos that are centered around creating audio sounds that stimulate a relaxing response from viewers.
Many people have turned to ASMR as a form of relaxation that often serves as a way of reducing stress and even acts as a sleeping aid. If you navigate to YouTube and type in the term “ASMR,” hundreds of videos will pop up of people creating different sounds, from crunching on potato chips to pouring sand in a jar. The term was originally coined by Jenn Allen, and it is also described as a “brain massage” and “head tingle.” Whispering is another commonly reported stimulus of ASMR, and many of these videos online involve the creator whispering in a soft voice while role playing, simulating everything from a visit to the doctor’s office to a session in the barber’s chair. Many people have turned to ASMR videos in order to relieve insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks.
While it is more widely recognized, ASMR still isn’t completely understood in the scientific world. According to Tom Stafford, a psychology and cognitive science expert, “It might well be a real thing, but it’s inherently difficult to research. The inner experience is the point of a lot of psychological investigation, but when you’ve got something like this that you can’t see or feel, and it doesn’t happen for everyone, it falls into a blind spot. It’s like synaesthesia – for years it was a myth, then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it.”
Neurologist Edward J. O’Connor mentioned that the obstacle to accurately researching ASMR is that there is no single stimulus that triggers ASMR for all individuals. While there are no general harms that seem to occur as a result of ASMR, there are no clinical trials that provide data demonstrating the general efficacy and safety either. Just about all of the claimed benefits are based on personal accounts of individual perception, but the ASMR community has certainly increased in number in the past years and has become more mainstream, which has attracted more attention to this phenomenon.
The launch of ASMR Radio provides playlists featuring different types of sounds that viewers can explore and enjoy for themselves. For some people (as in my case), certain sounds connect one to pleasant childhood memories, while for others it’s simply a matter of personal preference, just like our varied taste in musical genres. Some videos only feature audio triggers, while others offer physical demonstrations as well, such as stroking one’s hand with a brush or rearranging stones in a bowl of water, for instance.
If you find that you are attracted to certain sounds over others, you may very well be experiencing ASMR. Take some time to sift through the various videos featured on YouTube and watch/listen to a few different ones. Whether or not you actually experience ASMR, it’s still a mind-opening experience and you just might discover a new method for relaxation.