Entertainment

What Actually Is ASMR?

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Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

If you haven’t already been hanging out in one of the more previously obscure corners of YouTube for the past few years, you might have no idea what this whole "ASMR" thing is. From the infamous 2019 Michelob Ultra Super Bowl ad to videos by Ariana Grande and Cardi B, celebrities, big brands, and major news outlets have all taken notice of the once obscure YouTube phenomenon neatly abbreviated as ASMR. And where folks sensitive to ASMR -- which does not seem to be everyone, but we’ll get to that later -- were once relegated to message boards and chat rooms, wondering if they were weirdos, social media has allowed the phenomenon to become mainstream to the point where there are thousands of podcasts, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, and other outlets devoted to folks interested in the phenomenon.

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, which is a very scientific way of describing the feeling of pleasant, ticklish, shivers running up and down your body, usually the back of your neck and along your shoulders, in response to certain auditory, visual, or physical stimuli or “triggers.” The effect is commonly referred to as “tingles” by the ASMR community. You know the feeling you get when someone is scratching your back and hits the Exact Correct Spot and you get goosebumps on your arms? Well, ASMR is a similar, more prolonged feeling. It’s euphoric, relaxing and affects people sensitive to it in a bunch of different ways.

And while the fact that there was a Super Bowl ad designed to appeal to folks with ASMR sensitivity means our previously semi-obscure internet community has essentially been blown up by the Michelob family of beers, we’re not bitter. ASMR is all about tingly good vibes, so if you’re curious about the phenomenon, or wondering whether you’re sensitive to ASMR, read on and we’ll get you up to speed.

What causes ASMR ?

In order to answer the question of what causes ASMR, it may be helpful to generalize a bit and first explore frisson, ASMR’s more musically-inclined cousin. Frisson is that feeling some folks get when a guitarist hits that one note in the solo that makes your hair stand on end and your skin just feels all electric and wonderful and also if you’re me maybe you cry a little because the world just seems perfect in that moment.

Frisson is distinct from ASMR, but similar in that it’s another form of synesthesia, a phenomenon by which experiencing something with one sense leads to an involuntary reaction from another, different sense. There are tons of different kinds of synesthesia, from folks associating different colors with letters or numbers written in black ink, or even people being able to taste color. In the case of frisson, audio input causes a tactile output; those wonderful tingles and shudders.

For folks with sensitivity to ASMR, inputs are more general and can be either auditory or visual as long as they lead to the involuntary physical response. And although there haven’t yet been clinical studies that link ASMR to synesthesia, it’s a helpful comparison to make, since it illustrates how the tingles actually manifest. It’s a neurological thing, an involuntary (or voluntary, if you’re some sort of zen ASMR master) reaction to a certain stimulus.

Are there medical benefits to ASMR?

You might be surprised to learn that even though ASMR is an insanely new field of study medically and neurologically, the University of Sheffield actually found that ASMR can have health benefits for folks who are sensitive to it.

The gist of the study was that folks with ASMR sensitivity had, on average, significantly reduced heart rates while watching videos designed to trigger the response as opposed to folks without ASMR sensitivity when watching the same video, by an average of about 3 beats per minute. And though these results were self-reported, the test group that was sensitive to ASMR said they experienced feelings of calmness and excitement to a much larger degree than the group that was not.

Unsurprisingly, the study also found that those same people were much more relaxed than the control group upon watching the videos. The implication here, according to the researchers, is that ASMR videos can be as effective as other, more well-researched stress reduction techniques, like listening to music or meditation, in folks who have ASMR sensitivity.
And yes, given what you already know about ASMR, this all may seem a bit obvious, but at the same time, this goes to show that the tingle effect isn’t just anecdotal. It’s real, and it’s proven.

That said, beyond peer-reviewed studies, folks have claimed that ASMR videos have helped them with a wide range of serious mental health issues from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression and anxiety. And though there’s no hard data to back these stories up, it seems like more and more folks are using ASMR as part of mental self-care, almost like group meditation alongside a tightly-knit, mental health-positive community.

Why do only some people experience ASMR?

There isn’t scientific consensus on this yet largely because, well, there isn’t much science on it at all. A short explanation could be that it’s down to the way individuals’ brains are wired, and the ways in which they release endorphins. There’s also the possibility that autonomous sensory meridian response exists, as most things do, on a spectrum. Just because you’ve never gotten the tingles before doesn’t mean you’re completely insensitive to ASMR, it may just mean that you’re simply less sensitive to it. 

It’s frustrating, but since we don’t really know all that much about why ASMR happens still, there’s no real hard science as of yet on what makes folks sensitive (or insensitive) to it, apart from the link with other synesthesia-adjacent phenomena.

What are the triggers, and are there different types of ASMR?

Folks who respond to ASMR refer to “triggers” as the sounds or stimuli that make them feel tingles. There are tons of triggers, and some are oddly specific, like the sounds of getting your haircut, or the crackle and pop of a vinyl record. Though triggers are different for every person, here are a few of the most popular categories in ASMR videos right now:

There aren’t different types of ASMR so much as the fact is that everyone experiences ASMR differently. Some folks experience ASMR after watching a How It’s Made scene where robots punch out circles of dough to make cookies, with no audio input required. Some folks only respond to whispered speech.

What’s with all the eating?

Yes, chewing and eating sounds are ASMR triggers for a lot of people, but many of the live eating streams you’ll see on Twitch and YouTube aren’t specifically made for an ASMR audience. These videos are called mukbang, a portmanteau of the Korean words for eating and broadcast, and they gained popularity overseas around 2010, before spreading to the rest of the world. 

While there is a bit of overlap between mukbang and food-related ASMR videos, by definition, mukbang videos are always live, and rely on interaction with an audience. This is why they’re often called “social eating” videos. The appeal of these videos has been attributed to folks wanting both to live vicariously through the people eating the food, as well as a growing trend in Korea and elsewhere where less people are opting to eat out as a social event. Single folks can scratch a certain social itch at home by eating along with these mukbang videos, interacting in the chat.

Though chewing sounds might make some people feel all tingly, that doesn’t mean everyone sensitive to ASMR finds them to be a trigger. Many people in the ASMR community do find  eating sounds to be grating on the ears and some people who experience ASMR even suffer from misophonia, a disorder characterized by an extreme sensitivity to certain sounds, in which case chewing can be a trigger for extreme anxiety and discomfort and not at all relaxing. 

Is ASMR a sexual thing?

Short answer? No.

Long answer? Well….

So here’s the thing: Experiencing ASMR is a physical pleasure and leads to an amazing sense of euphoria that sends shivers down the spine. While it might be reminiscent of a sexual experience thanks to the sensations it makes folks feel (to say nothing of the fact that “tingles” are often referred to colloquially by media outlets as “braingasms,” “skin orgasms,” or other sexually charged phrases), the reactions in the nervous system that trigger the pleasurable response are completely different and non-sexual, even if folks sometimes conflate the two or attempt to make them overlap. Think about it like getting a massage -- it’s not inherently sexual, but it can very easily be sexualized. This goes double if an ASMR trigger like eating or receiving personal attention happens to be a turn-on or kink for somebody.

The disproportionate number of ASMRtists (and yes, that’s what they are called) who are women and the inherent intimacy of many ASMR aesthetic mainstays (like a video creator whispering directly into camera) can make ASMR vulnerable to viewers projecting sexuality onto videos regardless of the creator’s intent -- akin to what happens when women stream video games online, or, to be frank, post pretty much any video content online. Yes, there are certainly video creators who are happy to lean into that aspect, creating ASMR designed to arouse. However, erotic ASMR is only a small subgenre of ASMR videos, if those videos can even be considered ASMR at all. ASMR is associated with deep, almost meditative relaxation. Put simply, your heart rate should be slowing, not racing as if you were watching porn.

Where can I find ASMR videos to watch?

YouTube has been the main hub for the emergence of ASMR as a genre of video entertainment and continues to be the primary home of the most popular ASMR channels and ASMRtists. However, Twitch.TV and Instagram have become popular platforms for ASMR videos and streams too, especially for certain subgenres of videos like those featuring kinetic sand. And for the diehards, a new app called Tingles is quickly gaining popularity as an ASMR-focused platform offering viewers a whole bunch of customized-for-ASMR-viewer options like background watching, sleep timers (so your computer isn’t running forever if you fall asleep), and the ability to support ASMRtists directly.

Where did ASMR start?

Though Dr. Richard, the mastermind behind ASMR University, isn’t an ASMRtist himself, he has been instrumental in researching the phenomenon. His website has a complete history of the phenomenon’s origins and rise to popularity, but more importantly, Dr. Richard conducts regular polls and studies in order to assess the possible medical applications of ASMR, both for mental and physical health.

The story of ASMR’s rise to the mainstream is a classic tale of the internet bringing folks together. The earliest known mention of the sensation came from user “okay whatever” on the health forum steadyhealth.com in a post entitled “Weird Sensation Feels Good.” The thread spiraled out of control, with other users chiming in helping to codify and define the experience of ASMR, and the community was born, hitting YouTube via WhisperingLife in 2009 and gaining momentum ever since.

And it is a community. There are ASMR accounts on Instagram and TikTok now. The subreddit for ASMR is incredibly active, with over 175k subscribers all sharing their own experiences in what is, at the end of the day, an effort to not just engage in self-care, but also to help others engage in self-care in the most effective way.

So thank you, okay whatever. We’ll be thinking about you the next time we watch one of those videos of kinetic sand being sliced.
 

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Sam Greszes is a Chicago based writer who contributes to Kill Screen Magazine, GameSkinny, and ION Magazine. He is unlockable by beating the game on Very Hard difficulty without losing a life. You must then defeat him to unlock him for Arcade and Versus modes.