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Is ASMR Real or Just a Pseudo-science?

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is all the rage lately. Is it real? Is there something special about people who have it? Savvy Psychologist Dr. Jade Wu explores the science behind this fascinating new phenomenon and provides tips for trying it yourself.

By
Jade Wu,
Episode #258
asmr

What do the sounds of whispering, crinkling paper, and tapping fingernails have in common? What about the sight of soft paint brushes on skin, soap being gently cut to pieces, and hand movements like turning the pages of a book? Well, if you are someone who experiences the autonomous sensory meridian response—or ASMR, for short—you may recognize these seemingly ordinary sounds and sights as “triggers” for the ASMR experience.

No idea what I’m talking about? Don’t worry, you’re actually in the majority. Most people, myself included, aren't affected by these triggers. But what happens to those who are?

What is the ASMR experience?

It's described as a pleasantly warm and tingling sensation that starts on the scalp and moves down the neck and spine.

ASMR burst onto the Internet scene in 2007, according to Wikipedia, when a woman with the username “okaywhatever” described her experience of ASMR sensations in an online health discussion forum. At the time, there was no name for this weird phenomenon. But by 2010, someone called Jennifer Allen had named the experience, and from there, ASMR became an Internet sensation.

Today, there are hundreds of ASMR YouTubers who collectively post over 200 videos of ASMR triggers per day.

Today, there are hundreds of ASMR YouTubers who collectively post over 200 videos of ASMR triggers per day, as reported by a New York Times article in April, 2019. Some ASMR YouTubers have become bona fide celebrities with ballooning bank accounts, millions of fans, and enough fame to be stopped on the street for selfies.

There's been some controversy. Some people doubt whether this ASMR experience is “real,” or just the result of recreational drugs or imagined sensations. Some have chalked the phenomenon up to a symptom of loneliness among Generation Z, who get their dose of intimacy from watching strangers pretend to do their makeup without having to interact with real people. Some people are even actively put off by ASMR triggers. One of my listeners, Katie, said that most ASMR videos just make her feel agitated. But another listener, Candace, shared that she has been unknowingly chasing ASMR since she was a child watching BBC.

So, is ASMR real? What does it say about people who experience it? Is it something anyone can experience if they try hard enough?

Let's take a look at the fascinating things we’re starting to learn about ASMR and try to answer some questions.

#1 - Is ASMR even real?

The short answer seems to be “Yes!”

One 2018 study recorded participants’ physiological responses while watching ASMR videos. There was a clear difference between those who self-identified as experiencing ASMR and those who did not: The ASMR group experienced reduced heart rates and increased skin conductance, which basically means a tiny increase in sweating. This was a very interesting pattern of findings, because it showed that the ASMR experience was both calming (shown by the reduced heart rate) and arousing (shown by the increased skin conductance). This makes ASMR a different experience from simple relaxation, but also different from the excitement of sexual arousal or the chills that happen when you hear a really good song.

[Research shows that] ASMR is a different experience from simple relaxation, but also different from the excitement of sexual arousal or the chills that happen when you hear a really good song.

Scientists have also directly looked at brain activity during ASMR. A group based at Dartmouth College used functional MRI to capture what happens in the brain when those who experience ASMR watched triggering videos. They found activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, an evolutionarily advanced part of the brain associated with, among other things, self-awareness, social information processing, and social behaviors like grooming—among primates, that is.

There was also activation in brain areas associated with reward and emotional arousal. The researchers speculate that this pattern reflects how ASMR mimics the pleasures of social engagement and bonding. If you’ve ever watched a video of monkeys grooming each other, you would totally know what they mean! Watch the face of the monkey being groomed; you can just tell they’re loving it. There is something so nice about having another monkey pick those ticks off your back, isn’t there? Maybe it even feels like warm tingles down your back!

The problem with this brain imaging study is that there was no non-ASMR comparison group, so it’s possible that anybody watching the ASMR videos the researchers used could have had a similar response. But this just means that more research is needed—how exciting!  

#2 - What does being an ASMR person say about you?

Do ASMR people differ from others? A 2017 study compared almost 300 self-identified ASMR experiencers to an equal number who don’t. The study participants answered questions on a well-established personality inventory, and unsurprisingly, the ASMR participants got higher scores on Openness-to-Experience than their peers. However, they also had higher scores for Neuroticism, which is a general trait for being more prone to anxiety and negative emotions. ASMR participants also had lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness.

Another recent study also compared ASMR to non-ASMR people on mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to being grounded in the here and now. People with ASMR, by their own report, are generally more mindful, particularly curiously mindful, in their daily life. 

People with ASMR, by their own report, are generally more mindful, particularly curiously mindful, in their daily life.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you experience ASMR you’re definitely less extroverted or more mindful than your friend who doesn’t. These findings only suggest that, on average, a big group of ASMR people are more likely to, say, be curious about and open to trying a strange new food, and to eat it mindfully, while contentedly hanging out by themselves.

#3 - Can I experience ASMR if it doesn’t come naturally?

It's hard to say. There just isn’t any research to show that you can develop ASMR by working hard at it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it definitely can’t be done, but I’m sad to say that it doesn’t seem likely. For one, ASMR is an involuntary physiological response. Many of those who have it say that they’ve had it since childhood, when they didn’t even know to try. I imagine that trying to make ASMR happen would be like trying to manufacture feelings of infatuation.

Also, ASMR has some similarities to other un-learnable perceptual phenomena, such as synesthesia. Synesthesia is an experience where a persons’ senses cross-talk so that getting stimulation in one sense triggers experiences in another sense. Some examples include experiencing specific colors when reading letters, or even experiencing tastes when touching textures. It’s not something you can learn. Some researchers have suggested that ASMR is actually a form of synesthesia, or at least somehow related. If that’s the case, then ASMR may also not be something you can learn.

I imagine that trying to make ASMR happen would be like trying to manufacture feelings of infatuation.

But you never know. If you don’t think you’ve experienced ASMR before, or you’re not sure whether you have, you can test it out. The easiest way to do this is by going to YouTube, where there are thousands of ASMR videos with a huge variety of triggers. Start with the most popular ones for the highest chance of getting the right triggers for you.

One thing to note is that the authentic ASMR experience is not a sexual experience, so if you come across videos that seem to be going for sexual stimulation … well, if you’re an adult and the adult in the video clearly seems to be okay with being in the video, why not? Just know that what you experience may not be ASMR.

If you’re determined to get a full, customized ASMR experience and have a few extra dollars to spare, you can also check out services like Whisperlodge, which works with clients one-on-one, in person, to create ASMR experiences. At $100 for 45 minutes, this is for the true devotee or extra-curious ASMR virgin.

We may be leaving today with more questions than we started with. But at least we can be confident that ASMR is a real phenomenon reflected in physiological and brain activation. We also have a peek into potential personality differences between people who have ASMR and those who don’t. If you’ve never had an ASMR experience before, see if you respond to any of the many triggers on Youtube. Let me know how it goes!

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