ASMR: The science of sensations

I’ve been a chronic insomniac for about six years. I’ve never really responded to psychiatric treatment, so I’m always sifting through the provisional purported hacks for achieving relaxation. The latest phenomenon is one made popular by YouTube and a few high-profile campaigners – most recently Zoe Kravitz. It’s called ASMR, and it’s currently headlining the science of sensation.

ASMR, short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is the low-grade-euphoria accompanied by tingling sensations triggered by auditory stimuli–you might have found your cyber jaunts interrupted by vaguely disturbing thumbnails of people in their mid-twenties caressing pans or fingering hair brushes- Don’t worry I’ll steer clear of pejoratives. The only fresh take available as far as ASMR is concerned, is an objective one.

The community, made up of more than one million subscribers, is frequently reduced to being little more than a mob of vapid-fad-junkies. Up until very recently, their claim that they possess the apparently rare ability to be lulled to serenity by commonplace sounds, like whispers or the chorus of running water, has largely been matched by parody and indifference.

In preparation for this exploration of the potential sleep aid, I gave ASMR a whirl and dissected the triune of its most popular forms.

The science behind ASMR

Back in 2018, the University of Sheffield pioneered an in-depth study of the potential health benefits of ASMR. They found that those able to experience the sensation (self-dubbed tingle heads) had significantly stabler heart rates than those that could not. Additionally, this group exhibited elevated feelings of relaxation and social connection.

On the boosts to mood suggested by the study, Psychologist Dr. Poerio comments:

“This was reflected in ASMR participants’ self-reported feelings and objective reductions in their heart rates compared to non-ASMR participants. What’s interesting is that the average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness.”

Casey Kleczec, of The Science of Us, published a piece advocating ASMR as a tangible remedy for anxiety and depression. She begins, gracefully, by walking us through her pre-sleep ritual. She sings Irish ballads to her young daughter, beguiling her into a balmy slumber. This mention, no doubt, is meant to repudiate the supposed novelty of the subtly of sounds having an effect on our moods. She continues, by juxtaposing this anecdote with a description of her own sleep comforts. She puts in headphones, lies down next to her husband then listens to an ASMR role-play performed by YouTuber Gentle Whispering ASMR. In the video, the channel’s star Maria Viktorovna does  Kleczec’s make up, whispering soft comforts withal. The video ends, sending Kleczec fast to sleep.

This was a rousing advertisement for my own venture. I began by simply typing the word ASMR into Google-videos. Before I could determine the degree of effectiveness, I needed to be aware of any distinctions. My cursory research detected three principal genres, 

The first, and seemingly most popular has widely been attributed to the late Bob Ross.

Video of subject engaging in an ostensibly mundane activity, whilst whispering comforting nothings. I watched one of a guy drawing catfish with a fountain pen.  Each stroke came with detail about his day and the occasional rumbling of bottled ink. Though I can’t say the video triggered the warm, quasi-orgasm described by the many votaries of the trend, I did find it to be undoubtedly soothing.

The second breed of ASMR video rivals the popularity of the first and is itself furnished with plenty of further sub-secs. The ASMR role-play, described by Kleczec, features a performer either taking on the role of some kind of professional (think dentist, hairdresser, nail stylist) or some kind of intimate kinship – most commonly significant other though sometimes fictional character. I rummaged through a few of these and found them to be the least effective. To me, the best of them were sort of dull, and the worst seemed a little cynical and opportunistic.

The third notable kind of ASMR video populating YouTube can only be described as unintentional ASMR videos. These are collections usually pulled from the past, long before ASMR had either a name or a fan base, and feature naturally soft-spoken individuals speaking at length about a wide range of things. I got into these in a big way.

There’s one video in particular of an elderly English woman giving a lesson on posture-pure morpheme. It would be boring in another context but the deliberate speech and tedious subject matter produced an oddly hypnotic effect. The effective reframing is very fascinating.

I asked a colleague of mine about her use of ASMR as a sleep aid, specifically the physical responses she notices if any, she stated: “I don’t really think of it as some magical thing. It’s relaxing the same way anything that isn’t unpleasant is relaxing. I think I like the idea of simulated stability. That’s what helps me sleep the most. The steady sound of a faucet distracts me from my own hectic thoughts.”

The research on determining if ASMR is a thing biologically achievable by everyone is scarce, to say the least, but its growing popularity demands an intellectual inquiry.