A scene from a video designed to induce ASMR, "Space Travel Agent"
The barber turns on his trimmers.
He brings them closer and closer to my ears. He moves from one side of my head to the other. The gentle buzzing sound slowly pans from my left ear... behind my head... and then on to my right ear. BZZzzzzzzz.............zzzzzzzZZZ.
I notice an odd, tingly sensation in the back of my head. It feels good. The sound of the buzzing approaching my ear and the personal attention from the barber cause the back of my scalp to explode in tingles. It’s a distinct feeling, but until recently I never thought much of it. Then, last year, I discovered it had a name, and that there was a large community dedicated to eliciting this exact response. Preliminary research has even started exploring the obscure phenomenon.
The crackling sounds in this video, depicting the assembly of a miniature fast food meal, trigger ASMR for some
In 2010, a Facebook group dedicated to the sensation dubbed it Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR for short. The name is somewhat awkward, but it’s also preferable to other, more blunt proposals — "head orgasms" among them — and has been largely embraced by the community. Head orgasms are, however, a decent analogy for the experience itself: a certain buildup and then a quick, pleasurable release.
The internet essentially discovered ASMR. Slate traces the origins of the community back to a forum post created in 2008 on SteadyHealth.com. The explosive growth in ASMR awareness can be attributed to online communities that have emerged on Facebook, Reddit, and, importantly, YouTube, where people discuss their experiences and compile videos meant to trigger the sensation via whispers, crinkles, and interactions.
Because it was only recently identified, there is essentially no peer-reviewed research on the subject
Many of these videos feature a host playing a role, emulating situations or "triggers" that might elicit ASMR in real life — getting a haircut, having makeup applied, or even a lice check. Some videos drop the pretense of feigning normal situations and attempt to hit on raw ASMR triggers without any role play. And then there are the "unintentional" videos — clips made for other purposes, but popular in the ASMR community because they cause cascades of tingles in the viewer. Often, these videos feature someone quietly showing off a collection of trinkets or gently demonstrating a certain skill that requires a deal of precision. For this reason, Bob Ross is very popular among ASMRers: the combination of meekness, personal attention, and careful technique — along with the sounds of paint brushes — creates for many a sort of perfect storm of tingles.
Because it was only recently identified, there is essentially no peer-reviewed research on the subject. In fact, ASMR is so controversial that Wikipedia had refused to keep an article on the phenomenon. And most investigations into ASMR remain firmly on the fringe: one small group of amateur researchers, who run a website called asmr-research.org, are currently creating general questionnaires to identify and study ASMR, but they’re hampered by a lack of expertise and funding. So many with ASMR were thrilled by an announcement from Reddit user Bryson Lochte — an undergraduate at Dartmouth College — that he planned to perform brain scans to study it.
Another popular ASMR video, "Psionic Initiation"
These brain scans are a part of an honors thesis Lochte is doing in the university’s Brain Imaging Lab. The lab uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track changes in brain activity in response to various stimuli.
The experimental setup is to image the brains of people who experience ASMR while they watch videos designed to trigger the sensation. Lochte hopes to see what areas of the brain "light up" in response, and from there create a hypothesis about why ASMR is linked to certain brain regions. This research might be preliminary, but it’s also a significant step towards defining what, exactly, ASMR really is.
Lochte hopes that one day those YouTube videos might yield research-backed relief for ailing patients
Lochte, who plans to reveal early research results within a few months, says he was stunned by the response to his Reddit post. "I didn’t realize I’d get this huge feedback about the research I was doing," he said, adding that the post also elicited several brain scan volunteers and interesting fodder for future research. "Something I didn’t realize coming into studying this topic is just how helpful ASMR has been for certain people."
Some shared stories about using ASMR to cope with depression, while others found that it relieved insomnia or even mitigated the symptoms of PTSD. In other words, while ASMR seems like little more than a strange quirk, Lochte hopes that one day those YouTube videos might yield research-backed relief for ailing patients.