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The Emerging Science of Careful Whispers

ASMR videos give certain people relaxing tingles. Some scientists want to know why.

Some people crave whispers. As a way to relax before going to sleep, these whisper connoisseurs go to YouTube, type in four letters, and let their brain be transfixed by the murmurs of intimacy surrogates.

The YouTubers who provide them with these whispers pretend to be hairdressers. They pretend to be professional make-up artists. Some even pretend to be doctors, “idling in the cursory motions of care-giving,” as a medical resident elegantly put it in an essay on the then-burgeoning phenomenon. In a surprising departure from the usual tropes, one YouTuber even describes and caresses different models of guns in reassuring whispers.

In order to provide an enveloping, three-dimensional soundscape, these YouTubers often use two microphones close to each other, one for the left ear, one for the right ear, and they tap on a variety of objects. “Tap tap tap,” goes the stereo sound, from your left ear to your right ear. All of this intimacy theatre exists for a reason: to give people tingles. But only special people.

The four letters that represent both the tingles and the content meant to generate these tingles are ASMR. The initialism was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, who played a large role in bringing awareness to this strange phenomenon. She told an interviewer she wanted to give it a name that was objective, clinical even, and a name that was definitely not tied to sex. Indeed, even though naïve observers of ASMR videos might infer that something deeply sexual is happening, the vast majority of the 475 survey respondents in the first peer-reviewed paper on ASMR were categorical: they did not use ASMR for sexual stimulation. Its purpose was relaxation, sleep, and stress reduction.

ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response.” “Autonomous” because it just happens, it’s not a choice. “Sensory” because it relates to the senses. The word “meridian” is in there to mean peaks of emotion. So it’s an autonomous response that gives a peak experience involving the senses, a “brain orgasm” as it is colloquially known. In people who experience ASMR (because not everyone does), things like whispers, personal attention, crisp sounds, slow movements, and repetitive tasks like hair brushing trigger a sustained tingling sensation that usually starts on the head and can also involve the neck, shoulders, and sometimes the lower back, arms and legs. It is a pleasant sensation that is at once calming and arousing, although once again not in a sexual way.

The ecosystem of ASMRtists—people who produce content (usually video) for the express purpose of triggering ASMR in their audience—is vast and as weird as human nature itself. In its most basic form, an ASMR video consists of a host, usually young, picking up an object and tapping it in different ways close to their microphones. The goal is to plunge the viewer, usually wearing headphones in a darkened room, into a soundscape of intimacy and of repetitive sounds, so that the relaxing tingles can be triggered and relieve stress. More elaborate videos deliver these soft sounds in the context of whispered role-playing. For people who have never experienced ASMR (including myself), it might seem very strange but the phenomenon’s popularity cannot be denied. Top ASMR YouTubers get millions of views on their videos. On January 1 of this year, the word “ASMR” was the #2 searched term on YouTube in the United States, above “music.” Worldwide, it came in at #3, after searches for Korean boy band BTS and for YouTuber PewDiePie.

In the face of such a massive happening, scientists took notice. But studying the differences between the brains of the tingle haves and the tingle have-nots is not as easy as it sounds.

The intimacy of frightening bangs

The easiest thing to do scientifically with ASMR is to send out surveys to get some numbers on the phenomenon. In 2015, a pair of researchers in the United Kingdom did just that, and this was followed by a few more surveys from other research groups. Most people with ASMR report it has an effect on their mood. Some even seek it out because interventions, medical or otherwise, have failed them. ASMR videos with music in them are generally disliked. In order to trigger those tingles, lower-pitched and complex sounds are preferred. If the ASMRtist is reading from a script, that’s not good. The sounds should be realistic and the artist should make expert use of the objects making the sounds. So say the experts.

Scientists also recruited people with ASMR to fill out personality questionnaires. Two studies reported that these people, compared to others who do not claim to experience ASMR, scored higher for the trait “openness to experience” and lower for “conscientiousness.” That last one may sound baffling, as if people with ASMR are being accused of not showering regularly, but the authors of one paper suggested that it may mean they are more flexible and more inclined to behave spontaneously.

But the big question was, could scientists peer inside the brain of a person with ASMR to see what was going on? There was, after all, a big obstacle standing in the way. ASMR requires quietness. It is difficult to imagine triggering ASMR in the middle of a construction yard. But the kinds of machines typically used to probe the brain are not quiet; they are very loud.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a popular technique that allows a scanner to see blood flow in the brain. The idea is that, if a task requires a particular area of the brain to be active, blood, which carries oxygen and nutrients, will go to that area during the task. In this way, scientists can see which areas of the brain get triggered during a particular task and infer, based on what is known about these areas, what type of activity the brain engages in to do this task. For example, when looking at an interesting object, our visual cortex at the back of the head would light up. What areas might light up while watching an ASMR video, scientists wondered.

MRI scanners emit “frightening bangs,” as actor and science communicator Alan Alda put it after coming out of one, so it’s hard to imagine ASMR being compatible with it. The first fMRI study of ASMR was conducted in Winnipeg but no ASMR material was played during the scan. Instead, 11 people capable of ASMR and 11 people incapable of it were scanned to see if there were differences in how their brains normally functioned. Sure enough, the scientists did see a distinction. There are different areas in the brain where, in the absence of thinking or of stimulation coming from the environment, the firing of neurons essentially changes together: it covaries. These areas form a network that is functionally connected in this way. In this small experiment, researchers saw that people with ASMR had less of this functional connectivity which, they hypothesized, might mean that they were not as good at suppressing experiences that tied the senses to emotions.

A year later, a team at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire pushed the testing further: they managed to play ASMR videos while their participants were inside the active fMRI machine. There was no control group, unfortunately, but the participants, who were already known to respond to ASMR videos, did report feelings of relaxation and tingles during the experiment despite the loud noises. Meanwhile, a part of their brain associated with rewards and another tied to emotional arousal were activated.

But when the Winnipeg team tried to replicate these findings, what emerged were similarities but also an important contradiction: unlike the Dartmouth study, the area associated with rewards did not get activated during their experiment. Further fMRI studies have been published since, always fairly small and always having to deal with the problem of piping in intimate sounds in a room filled with “frightening bangs” and trying to elicit a very private feeling.

To overcome these challenges, the Winnipeg team tried scanning participants with a different device, a headdress of electrodes known as an electroencephalogram. Funnily enough, some participants said that having the researchers install the apparatus on their head—position it and adjust it—that this series of intimate, soft, repetitive motions actually triggered their ASMR before the test even began! And while the headdress of electrodes is certainly quiet, unlike the fMRI machine, the gel applied to the scalp for this type of device interfered with the tingles for some of the participants. It turns out that studying ASMR often runs into the problem of how not to interfere with the darn thing.

What it is, what it isn’t, what it might be

All of this early prodding into what ASMR really is allows scientists to both distinguish it from and reconcile it with other states of the brain. For example, the French word frisson is often used to describe the chills we get when a brilliant piece of music violates our expectations. Like ASMR, it takes place when we are mindful and engaged; it affects how we feel; and it is triggered by different things in different people. But there are differences between ASMR and frisson. The tingles of ASMR last longer and don’t quickly spread throughout the body. And while ASMR is relaxing, frisson is exciting.

Many have claimed that clips from the Bob Ross show The Joy of Painting trigger ASMR, but one study indicates that enjoyment of Ross’ relaxing demeanour may be distinct from ASMR, leading to satisfaction as opposed to pleasure.

It has been hypothesized that ASMR is a type of synaesthesia, which is a strange and varied phenomenon by which senses that are not typically linked together get smooshed together. Certain people with synaesthesia might, for example, automatically see the letter “A” as tinged with the colour red. Others associate sounds with colours, consistently and without meaning to. It has been hypothesized that maybe, just maybe, the part of the brain that processes sound is cross-activated in ASMR with its neighbour, the insula, which looks inwards and which helps us process emotional states. This would also tie ASMR to misophonia, often thought of as being on the same spectrum, just at the other extreme. Misophonia is a profound hatred of specific sounds like chewing or slurping.

As scientists detect more and more physiological changes and brain function variation in people with ASMR, it’s becoming harder and harder to deny its reality. What it actually is and what it can do for people remain to be clarified and for that, as some researchers have argued, we will need studies that use multiple measurements of the ASMR state on multiple occasions and that confirm someone’s ASMR status by having them watch ASMR videos in the lab prior to the study to confirm that what they are experiencing is really ASMR. More consistency and rigour should yield more reliable results.

But if you want to know whether or not the phenomenon has any sway over your brain, find somewhere quiet, put on a pair of headphones, and type in “ASMR” into YouTube. If you feel a static-like, pleasant and relaxing tingle in your head, you will know you may have earned a membership card to the ASMR club.

Take-home message:
-ASMR is a phenomenon in which certain people feel relaxation and a distinct tingling sensation on the head in the presence of soft trigger sounds like whispers and careful, repetitive motions
-ASMR has only begun to be studied in the past few years and scientists are making observations about the brain function of people with ASMR that are not always consistent from study to study
-One hypothesis is that ASMR is a type of synaesthesia, where a stimulus meant for one sense triggers another as well, and that ASMR is related to a hatred of certain sounds known as misophonia


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