Why is everyone whispering?
If you’re on any of the social media platforms, you might notice people talking about ASMR. Or, maybe you’ve stumbled across weird videos of people whispering or doing other strange things quietly. Why are they doing this? What is ASMR? Is it helpful?
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has been around for a long time, but just recently started becoming popular. The videos typically incorporate a wide variety of audiovisual sensory inputs and are low in production costs, but have a massive replay-ability factor. This has led some people to pursue careers in making ASMR videos. It’s a curious phenomenon that is defined as a calming, pleasurable feeling often accompanied by a tingling sensation that starts in the head and neck and, sometimes, moving down your spine to your arms and legs. It may also happen in waves or pulses. It’s a very pleasant, natural high state and also referred to as a ‘head orgasm’, but isn’t usually related to anything sexual.
ASMR occurs in response to certain stimuli, which vary from person to person. The ASMR Research & Support organization classifies it into two categories. Type A is someone who is relaxed by their own thoughts, like meditation. Type B individuals relies on something external in order to stimulate their euphoria. This is the most common type. One way to think of ASMR is as the exact opposite of the nails on a chalkboard feeling that most people get. Keep in mind the tingling sensation isn’t the same as the chills, or frisson (French word for shiver), you get from an emotional experience, such as listening a beautiful piece of music, but the prickly sensation when you hear or see something soothing, without having to physically touch it. Chills often happen all over and at once, whereas ASMR usually doesn’t. On a side note, if the videos completely and unreasonably annoy you, there’s an explanation for that. You might have something called misophonia, which is an extreme reaction to certain sights and sounds. It’s the exact opposite of ASMR.
Unfortunately, not everyone feels it. For individuals who don’t experience it, the concept can be hard to wrap your mind around. This is part of the reason why the psychological research community has neglected studying the sensation until now. The other is that it’s an inherently personal, private experience. This means that it’s not something that usually comes up in conversation, so many people might not have realized that others had similar experiences.
The first formal study of ASMR was conducted by researchers from Swansea University in the United Kingdom and was published in March 2015. The study focused on where, when and why people watch ASMR videos. Using this information, the researchers tried to establish if there was any consistency in ASMR-triggering content and if individuals felt it had any effect on their mood. It found that 98% people in the 475-participant study were using it mainly for relaxation. Around 70% said they were using it for stress relief and 82% reported that they are using it to help them go to sleep. Only 5% said they were using it for sexual stimulation. The study also looked at triggers and found that while there are many, there are four main types. These are whispering (75%), personal attention, such as getting a haircut (69%), crisp sounds, like crunchy leaves (64%) and slow movements (53%). Some of the other more common ones are white noise, lip smacking, tapping on hard surfaces, brushing sounds, sound of someone eating, food prepping, pages turning, hair brushing, folding towels, rain and Bob Ross (the PBS painter).The triggers are sounds that are always low volume and are steady, rhythmic and predictable. This is because our brains interpret them as non-threatening, which can induce relaxation. Due to this, the study implies that, much like meditation and mindfulness, ASMR might be able to improve mood, decrease pain symptoms and possibly provide temporary relief for depression.
A study recently published from researchers at University of Sheffield in the U.K. found that ASMR does help people feel calmer, less stressed and less sad. The study looked at the physiological measures, like changes in heart rate, breathing rate or skin conductance, to see if any changes would indicate that the person’s body was more relaxed after viewing ASMR videos. The study did show a positive correlation between the two. This led researchers to believe that ASMR triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, much in the same way that meditation does. The only problem is that it’s a temporary fix because the effect fades a few hours after the tingling sensation does. Also, the more you watch ASMR videos, the more your body and brain potentially develop a tolerance to it. If this does happen, stop watching the videos for a couple of weeks. For most people, this break will allow their ASMR sensations to return to normal.
Besides the benefits of ASMR, the other question is why does it occur? There’s speculation that some form of neurological nuance, such as a strong neural connection between auditory and emotional areas. The Swansea University study hypothesizes that ASMR may be linked to synesthesia, which is a condition where sensory input felt by one sense is perceived at the same time by another sense. They found that a portion of their participants experienced both ASMR and synesthesia. New evidence about synesthesia indicates that it’s partly determined by genes influencing your brain development and the thought is that it’s possible ASMR is determined by similar gene activity.
So far, all of the studies done seem to suggest that ASMR may have very real, therapeutic value. While there’s no current concrete proof that it’s an antidote for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or insomnia, many people are using the videos to aid in treating these things. However, until further information is known there needs to be a careful balance between skepticism and open-mindedness when investigating ASMR. In the meantime, if you’re feeling stressed or having trouble sleeping, it can’t hurt to watch a few videos.