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ASMR: What Is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response & Does It Work?

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ASMR - Dr. Axe

If you spend a decent amount of time on social media or platforms like Reddit, you may have across the unusual trend called ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response.” What does ASMR seen on things like TikTok and YouTube mean?

People report experiencing ASMR — which is described as “tingling sensations” down the scalp, neck and spine, as well as feelings of relaxation and well-being — when watching calming videos or doing things that involve role playing (however they aren’t sexual in nature).

While it’s still not entirely understood how it works and how effective it might be, ASMR “triggers” (mostly videos or audio recordings) can potentially function as natural anxiety remedies for people who find it to be pleasurable. Research shows that ASMR is also potentially linked to less depression, stress, insomnia and pain.

What Is ASMR?

What exactly is ASMR? Autonomous sensory meridian response is a sensory phenomenon that is still being studied. The term is used to describe tingly sensations and other forms of pleasure that originate near the neck and extend down the body.

Autonomous sensory meridian response might sound like a complicated bodily process, but it’s actually not. It’s not even a real scientific term but instead was made up by someone on Facebook in 2010 to describe sensations that people experience when watching certain things, especially videos.

Anything that sparks ASMR sensations is known as a “trigger.” Most popular ASMR triggers/videos feature people doing ordinary things, such as:

  • Whispering stories
  • Repetitive movements
  • Meditating and giving massages
  • Making swooshing sounds
  • Stirring or pouring something
  • Giving people personal attention, such as by grooming or examining
  • Playing with objects like paper or utensils
  • Watering plants or doing other household chores
  • Making crisp sounds
  • Laughing
  • Creating white noise, such as with a blow dryer, airline noises or vacuums
  • Doing activities with slow movements

ASMR can be experienced without videos, such as by doing something creative or tactile with other people, but videos are currently the most popular trigger and way that people experiment with autonomous sensory meridian response. Popular creators of ASMR videos on YouTube even describe their work as a “form of art” and themselves as “ASMR artists.”

How Does It Work?

There hasn’t been much research specifically focused on ASMR, so it’s hard to say how it works exactly. However, we can relate the sensations that people describe, such as feeling soothed or comforted, to other types of relaxing or engaging experiences.

We can also rely on anecdotal evidence (people’s explanations of why they enjoy ASMR).

One neurologist explained to the news website Vox that ASMR most likely works via several mechanisms:

  • ASMR is likely a way of activating the brain’s pleasure response. In other words, watching certain types of videos makes us feel good, so we keep doing it, which reinforces the pleasurable feelings.
  • It can put people into a “flow state,” meaning they are fully engaged in the activity and focused on the present moment, which helps calm down negative thoughts. This makes ASMR similar to mindfulness practices, which have been shown in many studies to have positive effects on mental and physical health.
  • It may be similar to a type of mild seizure. Believe it or not, seizures can sometime feel pleasurable and are not always damaging to the brain.
  • Other research suggests ASMR triggers may promote synaesthesia, which is a neurological condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. For example, someone experiencing synaesthesia may “hear colors” or “see sounds.”
  • Additionally, it can help people feel connected to others, which is naturally comforting. The New York Times has reported: “A.S.M.R. might have something to do with socially bonding ‘affiliative behaviors,’ known to release feel-good hormones like oxytocin.”

Some evidence also points to people who experience ASMR as being highly sensitive. ASMR response has been associated with heightened external sensitivity and greater control over one’s attention toward the body and emotional state.

In other words, studies suggest that those who experience autonomous sensory meridian response may have subtle brain differences from those who don’t.

Potential Benefits

Based on what ASMR enthusiasts have shared, the greatest benefit associated with ASMR videos is that they can have mood-enhancing effects, including by being relaxing and uplifting.

A 2015 study focused on the effects of ASMR that included over 260 people found that it’s similar to a “flow-like mental state.”  Researchers found that ASMR triggers can potentially help:

Another possible benefit is that it makes people feel seen and connected to others who enjoy the same types of triggers/videos. This might decrease feelings of loneliness and serve as an outlet for stress.

As the Vox article mentioned above put it: “It’s only with the internet that people can stumble into one another and suddenly realize they’re not alone in experiencing this strange sensation.”

How to Do It

There isn’t necessarily just one way to experience ASMR, since it seems to come down to individual preferences.

In the study mentioned above, the vast majority of people who reported experiencing ASMR regularly said they preferred watching triggers/videos at night before bed in a quiet, relaxed place. This can be a part of a calming nighttime routine that can help you feel more drowsy and less alert. (Just be aware that too much screen time and blue light exposure close to bed may interfere with sleep.)

You’ll likely need to use the internet/social media to achieve autonomous sensory meridian response, such as with help from YouTube videos or recordings. You can also try using binaural headphones to improve the quality of sound. Binaural headphones play two similar tones in each ear, which seems to affect brain waves in a way that has a soothing response.

If you want to experience ASMR-like effects without using devices, try listening to audio recordings of repetitive sounds and white noise, such as wind, ocean waves, airplanes, rain, etc.

You might also choose to use ASMR triggers at other times of the day when you’re feeling stressed or distracted, such as when working out or taking a break from focusing on tasks at work.

Risks and Side Effects

Is ASMR safe? Overall, yes it is.

If someone uses autonomous sensory meridian response as a relaxation tool, it’s unlikely to cause any side effects or problems. That said, it probably won’t work for everyone.

Why is ASMR so annoying to certain people? Because everyone has different preferences, likes and dislikes (known as “neurodiversity”), not everyone responds to the same ASMR triggers or videos similarly.

This means to experience ASMR, you probably need to do some experimenting to see which types of themes you resonate with you most (if at all).

People also report that they “grow tolerant to triggers” if they listen or watch them too much. You might find ASMR videos to be somewhat appealing at first but then very annoying if you keep watching them, so try switching it up to see if this helps.

Conclusion

  • Why is ASMR a thing? Autonomous sensory meridian response is a type of sensory phenomenon that researchers are still learning about. It’s gained popularity on social media and platforms like Reddit over the past decade.
  • People describe ASMR as feeling like tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp and back of the neck. Many find it relaxing and capable of improving their moods.
  • It is triggered by certain types of audio and visual stimuli, as well as role playing.
  • Some research suggests that ASMR triggers/videos may help lower depression, stress and chronic pain.

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