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What is ASMR and why does it make me feel funny?

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Science

ASMR. It’s a lot of letters to describe that tingly sensation some people get when they see someone whisper. But what causes it? And can it help us achieve calm focus?

The simple bits:

  • ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response
  • It’s a response some people get to audio-visual cues
  • Whispering, page turning and hair brushing can trigger it in some people
  • Some ASMR triggers can be polarising

During halftime of the 2019 Superbowl, an ad came on that had many people scratching their heads. It featured actress Zoe Kravitz sitting on a beach, while whispering into a microphone (well, two actually. That’s kind of important) while opening a beer. It was touted as the moment when ASMR went mainstream, which is kind of weird seeing as there are an estimated 50 million ASMR videos on YouTube.

So what is ASMR and why does it make some people feel funny? And why did we need to include it in our very own Clear Mind Experiment?

We spoke to Dr Natalie Roberts from the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University about what this ASMR thing is all about.

Yeah, what is it?

“ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is a long term, but it essentially means a peak sensory experience that’s typically induced by particular sounds like whispering and tapping, and it produces this intensely pleasurable head tingling sensation that can sometimes travel through the rest of your body accompanied by feelings of relaxation and euphoria.”


How does it make people feel?

“People liken it to a head massage sometimes or the feeling that you get when you get a haircut and they’re playing with your hair. Other people compare it to a feeling of static in their head, or goosebumps on the back of their head.”


OK, I want in. How might I trigger it?

“In terms of triggers, there’s typically whispering or soft speaking, usually with a binaural microphone, so it will capture an ear-to-ear type effect, so you can really feel like somebody is interacting with you in a 360 type setting. Role playing, so sometimes it would be a doctor role play or interacting with a friend or something like that, and of course hair brushing, massaging and that kind of thing.”


Is it the same for everyone?

“There are different types of ASMR media that may not be pleasurable to everyone but they still seem to have a pretty strong following online, like eating videos. That’s one of the most popular ASMR search terms at the moment, where people will eat different types of loud food on camera and then record that for the noises that it makes.”


Ew, eating sounds? Are people into that?

“Eating sounds are also really common misophonic triggers, where they can produce really intense feelings of disgust and annoyance in people – like ‘nails on a chalkboard’ type reaction. So some people really love eating sounds and some people just cannot stand them. So it’s quite a divisive set of triggers in the ASMR community.”


Speaking of ew, why is brushing hair popular in ASMR circles?

“It might be because it involves close personal attention and simulated interaction with the face and head, which is a really popular trigger just across the board. And it also may be because ASMR has been called a social grooming in a way, where it may be tapping into our primal instincts to feel comfort when we’re being cared for in a nurturing way.”


Ok moving away from gross stuff. Why page turning?

“It’s likely a couple of reasons, usually page turning will produce a pretty crisp sound and that’s a really common ASMR trigger cross the board, with crinkling and tapping and those noises. And then also a lot of people have had interactions with books, it’s quite easy for us to imagine ourselves being the one who is interacting with the pages, which can help with the immersion in the stimuli.”


So do you need to see what’s happening to have a reaction?

So ASMR, there’s a lot of videos on YouTube, there’s over 50 million at the moment, which is staggering but people don’t just engage with ASMR on YouTube, they also listen to it on music streaming services, where there aren’t any visual components to that experience. So there do seem to be some different means of accessing ASMR that are just as effective for different people.


The Clear Mind Experiment is an audio-visual project that provides a moment of simplicity. Have you taken part yet? 

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