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What is ASMR?
“O.K., I have to give you a shot; but it’ll only hurt for a second,” my little sister says to me as I lie completely still on her bed. We’re ages 4 and 6, and playing “doctor” is one of our favorite games. In a few months, she’ll decide on a career in dentistry (she’s since changed her mind), and our mock physicals will quickly morph into make-believe oral procedures. I’ll open wide in our cotton-candy-blue bathtub (“the dentist’s chair”) and she’ll count my teeth thoughtfully one by one.
Rarely would you find me on the other side of the table, so to speak. Being the administrator of mythological medicine never interested me. Yet being still and quiet while my sister “fixed” my feigned ailments relaxed me in a way I could never describe. It was just like the feeling I’d get when we’d sneak into our mom’s bathroom and steal her makeup brushes, taking turns whisking the soft bristles across each other’s faces: gentle tingles running up and down my spine, dancing around my scalp—like tummy butterflies for the spinal cord. But no one else I knew ever mentioned butterflies of the brain; no one talked about it on TV. So, I figured it was just me.
See also How to Meditate Daily
Is ASMR Meditation?
Two-and-a-half decades later, and the euphoria I felt from getting fake fillings has a cult following to rival Game of Thrones. Dubbed ASMR (short for autonomous sensory meridian response) in 2010, it’s a highly relaxing, pleasurable tingling that’s felt on the skin and scalp after certain stimuli. The phenomenon gained a huge online following after someone asked the internet about “head orgasms” back in 2007. All of a sudden, people like me were realizing they weren’t alone in their tingling—and wanted to know more about what was making them feel great.
Fans quickly took to YouTube, posting videos of mock physicals, face massages, and even crinkling potato chip bags—all intended to trigger the zombie-like relaxation that comes with what became known as ASMR. But many people are still asking, what is ASMR? While the sensation itself is still clouded in mystery (no one knows why some people are triggered and some aren’t), experts now say that for those who experience it, it can be as powerful a tool as meditation. To wit: New research from Sheffield University, published in June in the journal PLOS One, found that ASMR was associated with reduced heart rate and increased skin conductance levels (a fancy term for physical arousal that’s linked with better attention and memory). The researchers determined that ASMR is, in fact, a physiological experience that could have therapeutic benefits for mental and physical health—with the potential to minimize depression, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain.
Unfashionably late to this particular party, I first read about ASMR in a Sunday New York Times this past February. In an article titled “The Currency of a Relaxing Sound or Tingle,” reporter Andrea Marks described a therapeutic, interactive theatrical experience where participants played passive roles in scenes including “sitting at a table while someone crinkles paper in your ears, visiting a ‘doctor’s office,’ having your face stroked with makeup brushes, and a hair-brushing encounter.” (Insert brain-exploding emoji here.) The Brooklyn pop-up performance was orchestrated by San Francisco’s Whisperlodge—an immersive traveling show that curates intimate, one-on-one ASMR experiences for audiences that usually emerge from the quiet cocoon in a zen-like haze.
“There’s a tangible benefit you can feel in your body after you exit our performance, but we haven’t been able to back it up with science until now,” Whisperlodge co-creator Melinda Lauw says of the University of Sheffield findings. It’s similar to meditation, she says, because “it’s about paying attention—to small sounds and sensations. You become super quiet and aware.”
Down the “What is ASMR?” Rabbit Hole
As someone who’s struggled diligently for years to achieve euphoria through meditation, I wanted to see what would happen if I subbed a daily ASMR meditation YouTube video for my regular meditation practice. The first one I launched was called “Taps for Your Naps,” created by ASMR darling Maria (she prefers not to reveal her last name), the personality behind popular YouTube channel Gentle Whispering ASMR.
After you skip an advertisement, tourmaline-looking gemstones populate the screen. They line a plastic sheet of paper like stars on an American flag, and a pink-and-white manicure atop ten flittering fingers tenderly strokes each row, producing tingle-inducing little tapping sounds with each stroke. There it is. That inexplicably warm, all-encompassing feeling engulfs my skull like a massage shampoo. My limbs sink a little deeper into my couch cushions as I slowly exhaust the “Up Next” queue.
Your Brain on ASMR
But what is it about soft sounds and borderline-creepy caregiver videos that make some of us—an estimated 20 percent of the population—melt into our mattresses? More neurological research is needed to know for sure, but biopharmaceutical sciences professor Craig Richard, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Brain Tingles: the Secret to Triggering Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response for Improved Sleep, Stress Relief, and Head-to-Toe Euphoria and co-founder of the ASMR Research Project, thinks it’s a genetic response that’s designed to help us feel relaxed, mitigating stress hormones and promoting overall health in the process. “Almost all of our biological functions and reactions are to our benefit,” he says. “So why have we evolved? Why might this be?”
The answer may be in the basic way primates soothe their offspring, he says. How a mother coos and nurtures her fussy babe: She hushes her tone, offers a caring gaze and a gentle touch, conveying with every molecule that It’s alright. You’re OK. “That’s what these videos are doing,” says Richard. “They’re sending a signal to viewers that they’re safe and cared for in a non-threatening way. When a child scrapes his knee, it’s hugging; it’s lowering your voice; it’s focused personal attention. Our brains are hardwired for patterned recognition of those stimuli.” Most likely, certain brain chemicals are at play, Richard says. Research has shown that when a parent soothes an infant, or a teacher comforts an unhappy child, a “brain cocktail” of endorphins, oxytocin (love hormone), dopamine, serotonin (happiness hormone), GABA (relaxation and sleepiness stimulator), and melatonin (sleep hormone) are released, which probably work together to evoke ASMR.
If our brains are primed to feel good when we’re pampered, why is it that we all don’t bliss-out watching Bob Ross? It’s likely that a genetic mutation is responsible, says Richard.
We can think of ASMR like the mirror image of a panic attack, he says—an extreme negative reaction to an event or experience. Most of us might get agitated on a crowded subway platform, but fewer of us are apt to feel faint. “We know about phobias and anxiety,” he says, (genetics play a role in both). “But there was no word for the opposite—the other extreme, where people are highly relaxed by certain stimuli.” That is, of course, until ASMR earned its title.
It’s still a new frontier. Richard and Lauw hope forthcoming studies will prove ASMR’s potential health benefits by comparing blood pressure, cortisol levels, and brain scans of people experiencing ASMR against control groups. Anecdotally, devotees already claim that ASMR has helped them overcome anxiety, insomnia, drug addiction, and PTSD.
ASMR and yoga—and me
On a Friday afternoon, a week into my ASMR meditation experiment, I propped up on my sunroom sofa to try out a new (to me) YouTube ASMRtist. I had plans to meet a friend at 5 o’clock. But at 4:47, there I remained, limp-limbed on the couch while a 40-something redhead performed “skin treatments” into the camera—wafting essential oils in front of “my nose” and encouraging me, in a British accent, to “take deep, slow breaths.” I couldn’t move—let alone call a Lyft. Like sinking deep into Savasana (Corpse Pose) at the end of a restorative yoga class, all desire to re-enter the so-called real world had diminished. In this moment, it dawned on me that I’d been experiencing ASMR in my favorite yoga classes all along.
Richard says that yoga classes that incorporate ASMR are a no-brainer, although as founder of ASMRUniversity.com, he may be biased. Not unlike the intimate in-person experiences curated by Whisper Lodge, he says, yoga classes try to foster safe environments where one can relax and make room for self-nurturing. To this end, Kim, a New Zealand yogi and ASMRtist (who goes by the moniker Miss Synchronicity and like most ASMRtists, chooses to keep her last name private), has integrated yoga into some of her ASMR videos, and her audience loves it. She’s not alone: More and more instructional yoga videos are popping up on YouTube that incorporate ASMR triggers like whispering, tapping sounds, and pretend pampering. “Just like ASMR, yoga brings together the body and mind, expressing relaxation and mindfulness through the breath,” she says.
I can vouch for this. After my daily ASMR sessions, I find myself breathing deeper, moving slower, staying more in the moment, and feeling less attached to future results and outcomes. This new-found chill can last from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
And the best part for me? Unlike my oft-failed attempts at getting present through meditation, ASMR works every time.
About the Author
Lindsay Tucker is the executive editor of Yoga Journal and host of The Yoga Show podcast.