Have you ever felt a pleasurable tingling in the back of your neck at a particularly satisfying sound or in watching someone type or play with his or her hair? If so, you may be a part of the approximately 20% of the population that experiences ASMR. ASMR triggers are as varied and unique as those who respond to them, but the results are often quite agreeable.
What Is ASMR?
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a perceptual condition in which pleasant sensations, initially localized in the head and neck, are initiated by specific stimuli. These ASMR triggers are unique to the individual, though they often encompass a range of auditory, tactile, visual, and even olfactory stimuli. They may be experienced in person or online, and the internet is riddled with videos that are geared to provoke ASMR.
While ASMR usually manifests as a tingling that begins at the head and moves down the back of the neck and even to the rest of the body, for others, the response is better described as a calm feeling that washes over the body. Terms like “dynamic” and “wave-like” have been used to express what the experience is like.
ASMR is not to be confused with frisson, the pleasant tingling response to an emotional response to music or other emotionally arousing experience. ASMR triggers tend to yield feelings of contentment and relaxation as opposed to excitement, and they can be used to attenuate symptoms of anxiety or depression. It should be clarified that ASMR is not about sexual arousal. Those who derive pleasure from ASMR may be conditioned to feel ashamed, though there is no need to be.
What Are the Common ASMR Triggers?
These are some of the most common stimuli that trigger ASMR:
- Whispering or speaking softly
- Scratching or tapping sounds
- Light patterns
- Eye contact or other close personal attention
- Hair play
- Slow hand movements
- Repetitive tasks like mixing paint or turning pages
- Watching someone focus on a task
A Neurological Response
ASMR is a neurological response that translates into physical symptoms. These may include pleasure in the moment, improved mood, better sleep, pain relief, deeper concentration, reduced anxiety, and lower blood pressure. These responses are, in part, elicited because the brain releases specific neurohormones during ASMR, including endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine. These neurohormones are associated with feelings of relaxation, comfort, and sleepiness, which is why the phenomenon is so effective for those trying to drift calmly off to dreamland after hours.
Research has shown the brain to be very active during the experience. ASMR triggers neurological activity in regions of the brain associated with empathy and emotional response and as well as areas that correlate with activities of social engagement. This has been demonstrated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.
A study published in 2018 observed a study group of ASMR-sensitive participants while they watched a variety of ASMR videos. Using fMRI, the researchers clearly saw activation in the following regions of the brain:
- Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC): The dACC is a region of the brain that manages cognition and motor control. It also plays a role in social cognition and feeling empathy for others.
- Medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC): The mPFC too is associated with social cognition and social behaviors, specifically as self-awareness fits into the puzzle. mPFC receptors can serve as binding sites for oxytocin, and when this occurs the neurohormone promotes relaxation.
- Nucleus accumbens (NAcc): The NAcc is responsible for managing specific emotions, particularly feelings of reward and satisfaction.
ASMR is still a relatively under-studied phenomenon. It has been referenced for many years, even in classic literature, though the scientific term was only coined in 2010. There is a lot of room for research into how ASMR triggers neurological activity and how the response affects daily life.
Downsides to ASMR
Despite the positive response ASMR elicits from many, there is a significant portion of the population that does not react well. Some people find the stimuli stressful or irritating, even occasionally inciting feelings of sadness. In others, exposure to stimuli produces no response. For those who do respond to ASMR triggers, there is a danger of becoming dependent. If you feel you must have the stimulus to perform daily functions, seek professional help from a doctor or therapist as there may be underlying concerns at play. Too much exposure can also cause individuals to become desensitized and develop “ASMR immunity.”
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