ASMR: A Sensory Refuge in the Modern Jungle

ASMR: A Sensory Refuge in the Modern Jungle

ASMR. Millions of people around the world use it every day for relief from symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and everyday stress. What exactly it is remains elusive, but it may prove to be a potent therapeutic tool.

Before you delve into this post, I encourage you to watch this video. In the mountains of Hawaii, actor Zoë Kravitz perches languorously at a desk, flanked by two microphones, a golden beer and empty pint glass in front of her. Kravitz whispers into a microphone, privileging every syllable as though she is chewing and swallowing her words. She drags the bottom rim of the perspiring bottle across the wooden desk, lifts it to a microphone and taps it with manicured fingernails. Ear to the rim, she cracks the seal, upending the luminous liquid into the empty glass. Bubbles susurrate as Kravitz smiles and the company logo fills the screen.

This commercial aired during the 2019 Superbowl. It was ASMR debuting in the American cultural mainstream.

What is ASMR?

‘ASMR’ is an acronym for ‘autonomous sensory meridian response.’ The phrase has decidedly unscientific roots; a woman named Jennifer Allen engineered the term in 2010 for a Facebook group. The name caught on.

Most people who experience ASMR describe (usually pleasant) tingling sensations which bloom at the base of the skull and spread around the head and spine in response to audiovisual stimuli. Whispering, tapping, and scratching are common audio triggers, while hand movements and lights fill the visual field. Although the experience itself is explicitly non-sexual– a point the ASMR community has been careful to emphasize­– terms like ‘brain-gasm’ have become ASMR shorthand.

Why does it matter?

The 2019 Superbowl commercial is just the latest in a brief but dense history of ASMR content consumption. Heard of YouTube? The media giant is a breeding ground for ASMR content creators, called ASMRtists. Channels like ASMR Darling and Gentle Whispering ASMR boast 2.2 and 1.6 million subscribers, respectively. The Reddit community ASMR. Sounds that feel good touts 176,000 subscribers. W Magazine created an ASMR-style interview series in which celebrities answer questions in whispers as they experiment with tingle-inciting props.

Why is ASMR so popular?

It could be that we ASMR content consumers are just rats pushing the pleasure button until we eventually starve to death, but there seems to be more to the practice. Anxiety and depression sufferers have reported that ASMR alleviates their symptoms. Some insomniacs use ASMR to help them sleep, and recreational users generally report lowered stress levels during and after viewing ASMR videos. For some, ASMR acts like a fidget-spinner, entertaining the twitchier parts of the mind and allowing the majority of attention to be directed to the task at hand.

Studying ASMR: What do we know?

So far? Not much. The scientific community has been slow to research ASMR as a discrete phenomenon. One problem is that the triggers are specific to the individual. It can be difficult to link them to particular cognitive or affective processes. If you’re an ASMR virgin or an errant traveler lost in the circuitous pathways of YouTube suggestions, the content diversity is baffling. Volume, material, speed, movement, even unpredictability of triggers can determine whether the ASMR consumer will cash in on their time investment.

Is ASMR unique?

Unclear. ASMR is difficult to distinguish from other ‘atypical’ states like frisson (good old-fashioned music-induced chills) or synesthesia (the experience of a secondary sensation in tandem with an original stimulus). In fact, some research suggests neural overlap between synesthesia and ASMR. Even yoga and meditation can produce similarly atypical states of mind which are affectively distinct but empirically elusive.

However, one study found that individuals experiencing ASMR exhibited measurable and contradictory physiological changes. Namely, the authors measured decreased heartrates and increased skin conductance, suggesting that ASMR is part of a complex emotional experience about which little is understood.

This is just the beginning

ASMR is a relative newcomer to empirical study, but its adoption as a marketing tool will doubtless draw parties with deep pockets interested in how ASMR can make them even deeper. Alternatively, the sheer volume of ASMR content and personal testimonies demonstrate its potential therapeutic value.

From composing blogposts for university courses to paying rent to finding employment, life overflows with stressors. Why not try ASMR? You never know, maybe listening to someone gnaw on raw honeycomb for 20 minutes is just what you need to relax.

Happy listening.