If you haven’t yet heard of ASMR chances are you’ve at least come across it whilst scrolling through cyberspace. Technically it stands for ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’ but loosely speaking it’s those oddly satisfying videos of people unwrapping boxes, cutting up soap, or, moving into pure ASMR territory here – the videos of individuals performing some kind of role play task, usually accompanied by a hushed whisper.
‘ASMR’ is a term invented, not by scientists, but by Jennifer Allen, who works in cyber security, in 2010 to describe a type of tactile sensation of tingling that often starts at the crown of the head and spreads down the neck and upper spine in response to certain audio and visual stimuli such as whispering and tapping,’ explains John Cline, PhD, psychologist and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. ‘The term was invented to describe these sensations (many also report a feeling of deep relaxation, sleepiness, and pain relief) that were being evoked in some individuals by videos that were first being made on YouTube in 2009.’
Said ‘brain tingle’-evoking videos have continued to grow over the years and have seen a huge surge in popularity recently. To the point that many brands (including Ikea) are now tapping into the phenomenon (pardon the pun) in order to shift products. ‘Companies are increasingly using what we’ve coined ‘Visual ASMR’ to convey the tactility of products in a digital space,” reveals Jessica Smith, trend forecaster at The Future Laboratory. ‘Instagram is a breeding ground for these new aesthetic movements as in a visual-first society, brands that better catch the scrolling view or are able to elicit a palpable, sensory satisfaction are more likely to be noticed.’ Smith also notes that as tactility is one of the first kinds of communication we experience as infants this brain-stem-led, primal type of experience is universally human and something we fundamentally crave.
‘ASMR’ is usually triggered by moments that involve positive personal attention from a helpful or caring person,’ explains Craig Richard Ph.D, founder of the ASMR University and author of ‘Brain Tingles’. ‘These real-world moments typically include hairdressers, clinicians, teachers and close friends but can also be triggered by stimulating caring moments or creating other gentle and relaxing sounds which is what ASMR artists have tapped into.’
Richard adds that it’s likely that we’re hardwired from birth to be relaxed by these moments because they help us feel safe and cared for; ‘Our recent research study highlighted the brain areas active during ASMR, and they are similar to brain regions activated in humans and other animals during grooming and caring behaviours,’ he notes. Yet for the most part, the exact mechanics are still unclear.
‘In terms of how it works, we don’t know the whole story but one study from researchers in England found that ASMR videos led to changes in physiological measures such as heart rate and the sweat levels on one’s skin (a measure of arousal known as a skin conductance response),’ says Stephen Smith, professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, who is researching how emotional perception and emotional experiences are represented in the brain and spinal cord. ‘There is definitely a physiological response occurring when people with ASMR view these videos and it’s possible that the connections between their specific brain areas differ from non-ASMR individuals but more research is needed.’
Forget counting sheep, could watching someone brush their hair be the new way to unwind? According to Mintel, 85% of Brits suffer from anxiety or stress at some point, with 16-24 year olds being the age group most likely to be stressed, so perhaps the quest to find an alternative stress buster makes sense?
ASMR videos are very effective at helping people to relax, de-stress, and fall asleep more easily and several published research studies have highlighted these potential health benefits,’ says Richard. ‘The challenges of modern life are driving the increased need for new and effective relaxation methods like ASMR videos which are free and accessible to almost anyone at anytime which means that help with stress and falling asleep is a simple click away.’
In an age where people are increasingly feeling isolated and we are reportedly witnessing a ‘loneliness epidemic’, these videos could also serve to help people feel less alone; ‘The person watching the videos feel taken care of in a time when many people feel they are ‘on their own’ with little societal support,’ says Cline. However, Smith warns that it’s also important to note that there is no evidence that ASMR can be used to replace traditional therapy; ‘It’s quite easy to sit at home and watch an ASMR video to relax. It’s harder to actually address the psychological issues and life stressors that make us anxious and stressed out to begin with.’