Soothing Sounds: The truth behind ASMR

Bridie O’Shea explores the online subculture of ASMR and wonders if it can be real if there is no scientific proof?


Nail tapping, soft breathing, brushing, scratching, and whispering: do any of these sensations (or a combination of all) make you feel warm and gooey inside? Like you could just melt into a puddle of relaxed vibes and drift away?

That’s exactly what a number of people claim that Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) can do. ASMR is characterised by pleasurable tingling sensations in the head, scalp, back and other limbs, which is triggered by visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. ASMR supporters across the Internet believe that this practice can help with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, along with combating insomnia, migraines and stress.

If you haven’t heard of ASMR before, that’s not surprising. It is still a growing subculture on the Internet and has only recently begun to tap into mainstream awareness. That being said, the YouTube ASMR community has grown tremendously over the years, clocking up a noteworthy 1,640,000 results when “ASMR” is searched. Some of the videos range from hairdresser scenarios with hair play and head massages to medical role-play and even tea brewing. It’s all in the soft sounds that the microphone picks up (and earphones are essential).

Business Reporter at Mashable, Jason Abbruzzese, attempted to put into words how the ASMR sensations feel in his article. “Imagine a tuning fork going off at the base of your skull.” He wrote, “The sensation — akin to a cool tingling — spreads like spilt liquid up into the back of the head, down the neck and into part of the back. It flows like a pulse, a physical feeling like a light on a dimmer switch being turned up, then back down. At least, that’s what it’s like for me. It is unbelievably relaxing, but like any sensation, words only do so much justice.”

And it is difficult to explain; to put the sensations into words, as to why the ASMR phenomenon is controversial with scientists. To date there is little to no scientific explanation as to why these responses occur; why tapping pointed nails on a desk sends tingles from the base of your neck down to your spine. All we have is the anecdotal evidence from people who claim to have experienced these sensations.

Academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, Dr. Steven Novella, has decided to look into the ASMR phenomenon on his blog site NeuroLogica, and asks the burning question: is it real?

“In this case, I don’t think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is,” he wrote. “There are a number of people who seem to have independently (that is always the key, but it is a recent enough phenomenon that this appears to be true) experienced and described the same syndrome with some fairly specific details. In this way it’s similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.”

So do we dismiss ASMR because we have difficulty testing it? Dr Novella believes that we shouldn’t discount it completely, as the human brain is a fascinating, complex place that has the ability to do amazing things. And if people weren’t feeling these sensations, there wouldn’t be a demand for them on YouTube. “How else can you explain the existence of videos of whispering Latin and wrapping paper noise on YouTube?” he asked.

So is it real? I think that’s something that you have to try out for yourself. Judging by the comments left on YouTube videos of popular ASMR content creators such as ASMRrequests (255,508 subscribers) and GentleWhispering ASMR (444,744 subscribers) shows that people who have experienced these sensations are convinced that ASMR is very real. For example, one person commented “HOLLY MOLY! I was tingling so much. You are absolutely THE best asmrist!“ Others posted “Super tingly! I’m fighting to stay awake to watch more!” and “Can someone please explain to me WHY this has just relaxed me? I stumbled across this video on accident. I’ve never seen anything like it and I am nearly falling asleep.”

So if you’re feeling anxious, stressed out, or need help falling asleep, pop in your earphones and give it a try. Who knows, it might just work for you.


Image: Jay Bergesen, Flickr, no changes made.