A few years ago, I watched a YouTube video called “Virtual Barbershop.” It was one of those viral videos that attempted to be somewhat educational. It featured (somewhat silly) barbershop sounds recorded with a special microphone that made the sounds appear as if in 3-D, to demonstrate how the brain localizes sounds.
Although it was meant to be funny and a bit of a gag video, I noticed that some of the 3-D sounds actually relaxed me. In fact, I realized it was the same calming feeling I got when watching, of all things, Bob Ross’ “Joy of Painting” videos. Curious, I watched some of Bob’s YouTube videos, and sure enough, his soothing voice, brushing and tapping sounds, and calm, deliberate actions had me nearly falling asleep.
By some happy little accident, I noticed a “recommended” video in the YouTube side bar called “Oh, such a good 3-D ASMR video.” I immediately felt relaxed upon hearing the sounds in the video, and even felt a small “tingle” in my head. That’s how I discovered that I had ASMR.
ASMR? It sounds like some horrible affliction—an acronym for a weird, one-in-100 million condition. “Hi, I’m Deirdre, and I have ASMR.” What is it—and why is my brain tingling?
What is ASMR?
ASMR, short for autonomous sensory meridian response, is a pleasant feeling caused by certain auditory or sensory stimuli. ASMR enthusiasts call these sensations “tingles,” or “brain bubbles,” since they are mostly felt in the head and down the spine, and produce a sense of deep relaxation. Common triggers for ASMR tingles include tapping sounds, hair brushing, massage, whispering and more.
ASMR has a large online presence, particularly on YouTube—a search of “ASMR” yields 5.1 million results. ASMR channels are curated by “ASMRtists,” who produce videos designed to induce tingles. Many focus on simple, relaxing sounds, or ramble in a soft whisper to the viewer. Others feature first-person views of elaborate role-plays, such as cranial nerve exams, applying makeup, or ear cleaning (a personal favorite). Still others focus on guided meditation, positive affirmations and anxiety relief, which are relaxing even for those who don’t experience ASMR. Of course, as with most things on the Internet, some ASMR videos can get very strange.
In spite of its admittedly weird nature, I appreciate how my ASMR helps me unwind from the stresses of graduate school. However, as a neuroscience graduate student, I was curious about what’s going on in my brain when I get ASMR. Why would listening to a whispering voice or watching someone fold towels cause a tingly feeling? Why do only some people feel relaxed when they hear or see triggers?
Craig Richard, a professor in the Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Virginia’s Shenandoah University, also asks these questions. He is the founder of the ASMR University website, and host of the ASMR University Podcast. Richard created ASMR University to “help gather and share what is known about ASMR, and also to inspire others to expand the understanding of ASMR through research and publications.”
Indeed, despite ASMR’s growing popularity, there have only been three peer-reviewed studies of the phenomenon, and the main focus has been on social studies. Research has barely begun into what goes on in the brain during ASMR. But here’s what might be happening.
A relaxed body map
Sometimes, you need to hear trigger sounds to get ASMR tingles. When sounds reach the brain, they are processed in the auditory cortex. But, this happens for all sounds we hear—what is it specifically about tapping or whispering that triggers the tingles?
The answer may lie in another brain area that helps with body awareness and sensation, called the somatosensory cortex. This strip of brain tissue is essentially a “body map.” Each area of the body is represented along the strip, from head to toe.
Richard explains, “The sensory experiences (tactile, audio, visual) happening inside any one person will be going to different parts of the sensory cortex. The surprising thing is how this wide array of sensations can all result in a similar perception of tingles and relaxation.”
Further, there is a lot of cross-talk between brain regions. Specifically, ASMR might involve a “conversation” between the auditory and somatosensory cortex. The information about the sounds may travel to the somatosensory cortex, and activate certain body-associated regions as if they’re actually being touched. For example, watching an ASMR video featuring ear cleaning, the sounds of “scratching” in your ear may be activating the “ear” portion of the somatosensory cortex, making it seem as though you’re actually experiencing the act.
That might explain why I got tingles during the “Virtual Barbershop” video—it created a 3-D space in which I “felt” the sounds affecting different parts of my body.
Mirror, mirror in my brain
Perhaps you can’t stand whispering, but instead get tingles from watching massage videos. Rest assured, there’s another possible explanation for your tingle trigger.
The brain has cells called “mirror neurons,” which are located in higher-order areas of the brain. Mirror neurons activate when watching someone doing a motion or task, and are thought to mimic the movements that are seen. It’s as if you’re performing the movement in your mind, but not physically. Unsurprisingly, mirror neurons also connect to the “body map” and motor areas of the brain.
“This network of neurons subtly recreates an experience in your brain as you watch it,” said Richard. “In other words, you are activating a similar set of neurons as the person [who] is actually experiencing the action. Your brain is ‘mirroring’ the action it is seeing.”
Richard explained that mirror neurons might also be a component to learning and empathy. “Just like when you wince when you see someone cut their finger, viewers of ASMR videos may be mirroring the relaxation being simulated in the video.”
So, in the case of a massage ASMR video, it’s possible that watching massage movements activates mirror neurons, making it seem as if you were receiving a massage. Or, if you watched someone performing precise, meditative hand gestures, mirror neurons would make it seem like you were performing the calming gesture. That, combined with the connection to the body map, could possibly explain how watching such actions triggers tingles and relaxation.
Why do tingles feel good?
Whether they’re caused by an auditory-sensory conversation, or mirror neurons, or something else entirely unknown, tingles share one common factor—they feel really good, and produce a feeling of relaxation. This is caused by release of chemicals in the brain.
“It is likely that neurochemicals like dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and/or serotonin are involved in the sensation of ASMR,” Richard says.
For instance, dopamine is one chemical that is associated with reward. Specifically, it’s associated with food, sex, and drugs. However, it’s also associated with “frisson,” or chills that happen when listening to music. Taken together, dopamine might be released when listening to relaxing sounds, creating ASMR tingles. Another chemical, oxytocin, is associated with social bonding. In ASMR role plays, the ASMRtist often creates a sense of personal intimacy with the viewer, often with close contact and detailed attention to the viewer. This personal attention may trigger an oxytocin release in the brain, which again might be related to tingles.
“If someone has a biological change which alters the production of these chemicals or alters the sensitivities of the receptors for these chemicals, then that could explain some aspects of the biology of ASMR and the varied responses to ASMR triggers,” explained Richard.
Similarities to other sensations
ASMR shares similar characteristics with other body sensations. For instance, gently running fingers down someone’s arm or back can cause similar sensations to tingles. Tingles can also feel like the sensations you get from scalp massagers. For the curious, these are great ways to mimic tingles if you can’t experience ASMR from videos.
In a recent studyby UK researchers Emma Barratt and Nick Davis, around 6 percent of participants who had ASMR also had synesthesia, the ability to “hear” numbers or “see the color” of a sound. However, there was no significant association between ASMR and synesthesia. Paradoxically, ASMR may be linked to misophonia, or the inability to tolerate certain sounds. For example, chewing sounds cause ASMR in some people, but others can’t stand it. Anecdotally, those with ASMR experience tingles with certain peoples’ sounds, but when others make the same sounds, it disgusts them. It could be that the same neural mechanism that causes tingles could also operate in reverse, so to say, and cause discomfort when hearing certain sounds.
Like many uncommon brain conditions, “ASMR is starting off as a poorly understood phenomenon which will require neurobiological studies to give it wider validity and deeper understanding,” Richard says.
Future use of ASMR
Despite the current lack of studies on ASMR, many researchers are just now getting involved in understanding this phenomenon. For instance, Richard’s ASMR University is dedicated to helping solve the puzzle of what chemicals are involved, and to recruiting people with and without ASMR to help study its effects.
But, why should we care about some weird tingling sensation? What difference does it make if certain people’s brains are wired that way? Many believe that ASMR has the potential to be used as part of therapies for mental health or stress management. Indeed, in the Barratt and Davis study, 98 percent of participants watched ASMR videos to relax, 82 percent to help them sleep, and 70 percent to reduce stress. The same study found an increase in “flow,” or concentration during a task.
Richard agrees. “[The Barratt and Davis study] helps to support the hope that ASMR could someday be approved as a medical treatment to help people with insomnia, anxiety, depression, and/or chronic pain—but there is still a lot of research and clinical testing that needs to be done,” he says.
For now, though, I’ll take pleasure in the fact that I don’t know why my brain tingles.
Richard encourages readers to take an ASMR survey at this link.