Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with much anecdotal evidence of the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data.
Origins of the term
Online discussion groups such as the Society of Sensationalists formed in 2008 on Yahoo! and the Unnamed Feeling blog created in 2010 by Andrew MacMuiris aimed to provide a community for learning more about the sensation by sharing ideas and personal experiences. Some earlier names for ASMR in these discussion groups included attention induced head orgasm, attention induced euphoria, and attention induced observant euphoria.
In response to these earlier phrases, the term autonomous sensory meridian response was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010. Autonomous refers to “the capacity in many to facilitate or completely create the sensation at will”. Meridian, from Old French “of the noon time, midday” alludes to the “high” or euphoria experienced. Also meridian channels are paths through which the body’s life-energy flows, according to the teachings of traditional Chinese medicine.
‘K… R…’ said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say ‘Kay Arr’ close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke. A marvelous discovery indeed – that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees into life!
Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)
Other attempts to describe the sensation refer to it as a “brain massage”, “head tingle”, “brain tingle”, “spine tingle”, and “brain orgasm”.
Since the mechanism of ASMR is not thought to be related to sexual orgasm, terms including the word “orgasm” are considered misleading.
The University of Oxford’s Practical Ethics says that unrecognized descriptions of the ASMR experience predate the online publicity of the phenomenon by many years, citing an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung by Austrian writer Clemens Setz, who notes that a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) shares similarities to the ASMR phenomenon.
People who experience ASMR commonly report having different triggers that stimulate them. A commonly reported stimulus for ASMR is the sound of whispering. As evident on YouTube, a variety of videos and audio recordings involve the creator whispering or communicating with a soft-spoken intonation into a sound recording device and generally a camera.
Some people find that ambient noise such as scratching, crinkling, tapping, blowing, writing (usually with a pen), and moving paper stimulate ASMR. Many videos are found on YouTube that focus on these triggers, and many use binaural recording to simulate a 3D environment. 3D sounds from a person may elicit a tangible feeling of the person being near the listener, while certain kinds of ambient noise may simply sound pleasurable.
Many role-playing videos and audio recordings also aim to stimulate ASMR. Examples include descriptive sessions, in a style similar to guided imagery, for experiences such as haircuts, massages, visits to a doctor’s office, and ear-cleaning. While these make-believe situations are acted out by the creator, viewers and listeners report an ASMR effect that relieves insomnia, anxiety, or panic attacks.
A conference in the UK (Boring 2012) included ASMR videos on its list of discussion topics. Coverage of this conference, as reported in Slate magazine, mentioned musician and journalist Rhodri Marsden introducing ASMR (alternatively called Auto-Sensory Meridian Response) as a type of nonsexual role-playing video on YouTube. Articles in The Huffington Post suggest certain triggers for ASMR. The articles mention pleasant tingling or buzzing sensations felt in the head and state that triggers such as the YouTube videos or hearing people whispering can stimulate the sensation. Other triggers may include goal-oriented tasks, soft-speaking, role-playing, and music. ASMR was mentioned in a Kotaku article stating that the phenomenon is similar to binaural beats in that certain sensory triggers, including whispering, stimulate sensations of tingling and euphoria.
A post in the British music magazine New Musical Express made distinctions between ASMR and frisson, noting that although both responses tend to evoke goose bumps in the observer, the emotional and physiological responses are different. Ohio State University School of Music professor David Huron claimed ASMR and cold chill to be different, describing the ASMR effect as “clearly strongly related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention”, and noting a strong similarity to physical grooming in primates. Nonhuman primates derive significant pleasure from being groomed, and Huron states that they groom each other not to get clean, but to bond.
ASMR has been the topic of various audio and video newscasts. There has also been coverage in traditional and online print publications. A live radio broadcast[clarification needed] featured an interview with a man stating that he experiences ASMR and included a discussion of the phenomenon and what triggered it for him. A podcast in The McGill Daily mentions the high prevalence of ASMR videos on YouTube and features different people describing their personal experiences of the feeling. In both media discussions those who experience the phenomenon stated that ASMR is calming or relaxing and is not associated with sexual arousal.
The WBEZ Chicago public radio program This American Life broadcast a story by American novelist Andrea Seigel and her experience with ASMR.
The KCRW Los Angeles and McSweeney’s collaborative podcast, “The Organist”, produced an episode concerned with ASMR and some of its leading practitioners.
Sacramento news program News10/KXTV reported on the emergence of ASMR videos on the internet for triggering ASMR and helping viewers relax or fall asleep. ASMR video creators, known as ASMR artists, were interviewed and described the ASMR community, ASMR videos and the intended audience for these videos. The fact that ASMR is used for relaxation and not sexual arousal was also addressed. News anchor Cristina Mendonsa reported on the ASMR whisper community by showing samples of ASMR videos and interviews with the video creators as well as the expert opinions from medical professionals. Mendonsa also created an ASMR video by guiding a whispered tour of the News10 studio and newsroom.
American evening news program ABC World News aired a segment on the sleep aid potential of ASMR featuring an interview with video creator Ilse Blansert.
In 2014, The Washington Post addressed the ASMR trend on YouTube: “If you experience the intended effect, the sense of depth can be dazzling. If you don’t, it’s like staring at an uninspired Jackson Pollock knockoff.”
In 2015, Nick Messitte published a two part article on Forbes.com on fiscal trends relating to the phenomenon.
Steven Novella, Director of General Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine and active contributor to topics involving scientific skepticism, wrote in his neuroscience blog about the lack of scientific investigation on ASMR, saying that functional magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation technologies should be used to study the brains of people who experience ASMR in comparison to people who do not experience ASMR. He also suggests the possibility of ASMR being a type of pleasurable seizure or another way to activate the pleasure response.
Dr. Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive sciences from the University of Sheffield, was quoted in The Independent, saying,
It might well be a real thing, but it’s inherently difficult to research. The inner experience is the point of a lot of psychological investigation, but when you’ve got something like this that you can’t see or feel, and it doesn’t happen for everyone, it falls into a blind spot. It’s like synaesthesia – for years it was a myth, then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it.
According to neurologist Edward J. O’Connor in the Santa Monica College newspaper The Corsair, an obstacle to accurately researching the ASMR phenomenon is that there may be no single stimulus which triggers ASMR for all individuals.
Sleep specialist Dr. Amer Khan of the Sutter Neuroscience Institute advised that using ASMR videos as a sleep aid may not be the best method for quality sleep and said they may become a habit similar to using a white noise machine or a baby using a pacifier for falling asleep.
Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Yasinski supports the legitimacy of ASMR and claims it is similar to meditation since individuals, through focus and relaxation, may shut down parts of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety.
There is a lack of scientific evidence that ASMR has any general benefits or harms. Any claimed benefits are based on anecdotes (personal accounts of individual perception), not on clinical trials that provide data from which general efficacy and safety can be shown.
- Music therapy
- Stimulus modality
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- ASMR University
- ASMR FM – Newest videos from the global ASMR community
- WhisperFinder – Directory of ASMR recordings indexed by tags