Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is the name of both the tingling sensation we feel when listening to whispering and other high frequency noises and the online community devoted to it. Belinda Lopez enters a world of whispers and scientific curiosity.
You play a video on YouTube. An attractive woman whispers to you and waves a make-up brush against the screen— ‘I’m touching your skin just very, very, very gently,’ she says, her lips moving almost imperceptibly.
If you’re not yet experiencing subtle tingles all over your body and if your head isn’t yet enveloped in a cloud of relaxation, then perhaps you don’t experience autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR… yet.
ASMR is both the name given to the experience, and the large online community that believes ‘the tingles’ they feel should be taken seriously. Video makers and watchers claim the soft sounds and delicate voices have helped them with relaxation and reduced anxiety, depression and insomnia.
A question of science
While thousands of ASMR videos have been published on Youtube, the experience of ASMR itself has had little more than a whisper of mainstream recognition. While the video makers often refer to themselves as ASMRtists (a play on artists), the discussion around ASMR has been less about art and more about science, or lack thereof.
The name was coined by Jennifer Allen, who started a grassroots organisation, ASMR Research, to counter the lack of attention medical science had paid it until now. With no academic, peer-reviewed studies yet published on ASMR, members of the community share updates of mainstream press or comments by scientists on Reddit.
I was slightly sceptical about ASMR to begin with. The ASMR video I happened to click on from a random lottery on Youtube didn’t help. It featured a young woman, wearing heavy makeup, breathing and — perhaps the word is sucking—on a microphone. And these videos are meant to be relaxing?
I reached out to ASMR video makers, who insisted that the Microphone Vampress (the name I’ve given her) was not representative of the community. They said the majority of videos are not intended to be sexual, and instead offer comfort for their viewers and aid sleep. I decided that in order to truly understand the experience of ASMR, I needed to infiltrate the community. I started my own ASMR channel and began bonding with my ‘fans’ with the rather unexpected results documented on Radiotonic.
What happened to me in the process of building my channel made me extremely curious about whether there was a scientific explanation to ASMR.
I approached scientists and sound professionals with some trepidation, expecting to be laughed away, along with my ever-growing collection of ASMR classic hits.
The sound therapist
Off a busy highway on the south coast of New South Wales, you’ll find a peaceful farmland oasis, equipped with sound production facilities. Here, classical music is filtered with high frequencies and sold to people looking to alleviate tinnitus, stress, anxiety, vertigo and a range of other disorders.
This is the headquarters of Sound Therapy International. Its founder, Rafaele Joudry, says she grew up watching her mother endure a debilitating sensitivity to sound.
‘She really couldn’t tolerate noise. If a truck went past, she couldn’t handle the cross current of noise,’ Ms Joudry says. ‘She had to have one conversation at a time.’
Inspired by the positive impact sound therapy had on her mother’s quality of life, Ms Joudry set up her company and began selling the less-than-mainstream therapy internationally.
Sound therapy music is an ever-so-slightly disconcerting listen at first— Ms Joudry calls it ‘gymnastics for the ear’ and her website is full of client testimonials espousing the therapy. I’m not yet sure what I’d call it (Ms Joudry tells me I need to build up my listening slowly).
‘Gentle, high frequency sound is always beneficial. It stimulates and tickles the nerve endings,’ she says. ‘It builds new brain connections.’
I play Ms Joudry a video from the most popular ASMR video maker on YouTube, a blonde woman whose artist name isGentle Whispering.
‘I’m certainly thinking there’s a commonality,’ Ms Joudry says. ‘Sound therapy and ASMR are two different ways of bringing concentrated, high frequency sounds to the ears and to the awareness, and stimulating the brain. I’m sure there must be an overlap in the impact that they have.’
Stephen Porges is an American neuroscientist, whose life work has involved exploring the impact human intonations can have on physiology. Though he is based at the University of North Carolina, he tells me his latest project involved working with the Australian Childhood Foundation to assist children with abuse and trauma histories.
‘When people are traumatised, their bodies literally tune to detect a predator, and they have difficulties processing human speech,’ he says. ‘What we’re trying to do is rehabilitate that.’ Dr Porges’ own research includes modulating vocal sounds to make them ‘more prosodic’.
‘Everyone has known from the days of folk music or love ballads, it’s how you calm people down, or nursery rhymes, or a mother’s lullaby,’ he says.
They are high frequency sounds, which Dr Porges says act as air conduction that require structures in our middle ear. ‘They’re actually muscles that regulate the little bones,’ Dr Porges says. ‘When those muscles start working, it changes the neural regulation of our heart. We actually slow our heart rate, and this is part of our calming system.’
He’d kindly agreed to watch an ASMR video before we spoke, and tells me he believes the video makers are using sound and intonation ‘in a very seductive way’.
Before I can reflect too long on the Microphone Vampress, Dr Porges continues: ‘When I say it’s seductive, it doesn’t mean that it’s sexual. It’s triggering responses of safety in people.’
It’s also no accident that the majority of ASMR video makers are women, he says. ‘The frequency band of female vocalisation is higher, and it’s that frequency which our nervous system evolved with to detect safety. Even classical composers understood this immediately when they developed their symphonies, by using the violin or “the female voice”,’ says Dr Porges.
‘So this is part of our culture and part of our history, is to signal safety through the voice of a melodic female.’
‘With a different theoretical model, we could create objective measures and functionally could actually see if ASMR was having a change in our physiology, if it was even enhancing our ability to process human speech. My guess is it might have some use at that level.’
The physiologist and ASMR fan
If there’s one man who is convinced that ASMR has an impact on human physiology, it’s Craig Richard. A professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia, Dr Richard instantly recognised the description of relaxing tingles when he first heard about ASMR.
Like many of those who experience ASMR, the videos on YouTube replicated a feeling he’d first encountered in childhood, when he found himself transfixed and tranquilised by the dulcet tones of Bob Ross, an American TV presenter who hosted a show about painting in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Other triggers still subdue him into a state of utter relaxation, such as his doctor listening to his heartbeat with a stethoscope or having his hair washed by his hairdresser.
‘I’m now bald, and that’s the part I miss most about my hair,’ Dr Richard says.
Finding a dearth of academic research on the topic, he began developing what he now calls his ‘origin theory’ of ASMR.
‘I’d been studying physiology for my career and I’d never heard of ASMR, and I’d never pondered the significance of that relaxing feeling I’d get in response to certain stimuli,’ he says.
As he clicked through the rotation of attractive, gentle (mostly female) whisperers featured in the ASMR videos, Dr Richard began to feel that he was being ‘comforted’.
‘So my first thought was, “Does this have any roots to being an infant?”’ Dr Richard says.
Investigating existing scientific literature, he found studies showed babies experienced a release of endorphins when brought into contact with their mothers. The endorphins emitted a pleasurable response and elicited feelings of safety. A similar physiological process occurred in bonding between close friends and romantic partners. In all cases, the studies showed that individuals who were closely bonded also release the hormone oxytocin, which increased the receptivity of the endorphins.
‘So you’re more likely to get those tingles,’ Dr Richard says.
‘Even the people in the videos, they have such trusting personalities,’ he says. ‘They just seem like people you would want to be friends with, that you would want to be close to.’
He now believes that rather than ASMR being its own unusual physiological pathway, it’s simply ‘that tingle that rises within you when you’re in a comfortable situation, usually involving another individual’.
Dr Richard has created a blog called ASMR University to generate further discussion on the science behind the experience. As a professor at Shenandoah University’s School of Pharmacy, he’s interested in pursuing clinical studies on the effects ASMR could have on aiding insomnia, stress or mood disorders alongside conventional pharmaceutical treatments.
‘The long-term picture could be that after appropriate research and these clinical studies are done, it might be able to show that people could use less medication when they’re coupling that with ASMR, used in an appropriate way,’ Dr Richard says, adding that it could be particularly helpful to patients who suffer side effects from high doses of medication.
There now appears to be a gathering storm of research being conducted on ASMR. A graduate thesis by American post-baccalaurete fellow Bryson Lochte is awaiting publication in a scientific journal, according to a recent New York Times article.
Meanwhile, a pre-PhD student at Swansea University, Emma Barratt, is currently writing an article exploring the patterns she sees between ASMR and synaesthesia.
The community-led website ASMR Research has also called out for volunteers to participate in a survey to document the experience and impact of ASMR, and is due to publish the non-peer-reviewed results this month, according to team member Karissa Burgess.
Photo credit: Send me Adrift