Can sounds cause brain euphoria? All about ASMR

By Vladimir Marchenko

  1. What is ASMR and how it works
  2. Scientific conclusions
  3. Differences between ASMR and other audio stimulations
  4. Types of ASMR triggers
  5. The future of ASMR

The ASMR phenomenon is relatively young, barely 10 years old. At the same time, its popularity just rolls over, millions of people around the world use visual and auditory stimuli to relax, fall asleep quickly and get unusual sensations like "goosebumps" on the skin. What is hidden behind this acronym and which benefits can virtual stimulators bring?

What is ASMR and how it works

The abbreviation ASMR stands for "autonomous sensory meridional response". This is a relatively new phenomenon in neurology and the exact mechanisms of its effect on the body have not yet been fully understood. The first mention of this phenomenon dates back to 2010 and is associated with the name of J. Allen, who organized a community of like-minded people on Facebook and created the term ASMR. She wanted to know more about the pleasant tingling sensation in the back of her head after listening to some sounds.

To be more precise, ASMR is understood as a reaction or response of an organism to audio, visual and tactile stimuli. Most often it is associated with different sounds: whispering, crunching, clicking, chewing, tapping, scratching, smacking, sounds of nature, etc. There also exist ASMR role-playing games which are quite popular. Some of such triggers are lost in the ambient noise in our normal life, hence, have little effect, while recordings that are usually made with highly sensitive microphones have a more apparent effect, especially if listened through headphones. On YouTube, ASMR videos get released almost every hour and reach hundreds of thousands views.

asmr how it works

Among people, the subjective experiences gained through ASMR are manifested in different ways. Some of us do not experience any vivid sensations at all, while others can barely stand sounds like cracking foam plastic, chomping or scratching on glass and find them unpleasant. Such sensitivity depends on temperament, mood, and other personal characteristics. However, the people who fall under the “spell” of ASMR describe the effect as tingling or constriction that occurs on the scalp in the region of the back of the head and crown and then descends along the neck and shoulders. Sometimes a tingling sensation also appears on other parts of the body and may even cause trembling. This "impulse" is very relaxing and allows you to fall asleep quickly.

ASMR is sometimes compared to sexual excitement, as it’s connected with the activation of pleasure centres. The human brain strongly responds to two triggers - pain and pleasure which comprise negative and positive behavioural mechanisms. If painful sensations force you to avoid dangerous behaviour or warn of possible injury, then pleasant ones have the opposite effect. In particular, they are rewards for experiences and actions that increase the chances of survival. It is achieved by the activation of the areas of the brain responsible for emotional satisfaction and dopamine production.

Scientific conclusions

The scientific community and psychoacoustics are not yet able to imitate the same “goosebumps” that people usually feel under the influence of ASMR. According to the data, ASMR audio and video are known to increase the intensity of alpha waves associated with rest and relaxation. Although it is most likely impossible to acquire a dependence on such videos or recordings, over time even the most favourite and tingling AMSR tracks may get boring, therefore experts advise to change your playlist once in a while.

There are not so many scientific publications available on ASMR yet. One of the main ones is the study by Barratt & Davis (2015) "Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state." Overall, it has been shown in the study that ASMR has a temporary positive effect on depression, stress, and pain. It also turned out that out of more than 460 respondents:

  • 98% agree with the statement that ASMR relaxes them;
  • 82% use it to fall sleep;
  • 70% use ASMR for stress management.

The most important stimuli were:

  • whisper (75%); 
  • personal attention (69%); 
  • rhythmic sounds (64%).

Around 81% of people who participated in the study listened to the tapes before going to bed, and more than half of the respondents preferred to do it in a relaxed atmosphere. Also, about 80% reported that ASMR affects their mood. Moreover, in half of the cases, this happened without the accompanying tingling.

asmr for brain

A study by Clark, Fredborg & Smith (2017) examined the personality characteristics of people experiencing ASMR. Exactly 284 people were included in the test group and the same number of people in the control group. Predictably, the most susceptible were those prone to introversion, with high sensitivity and craving for new sensations. Interestingly, 100% of the participants responded to a whisper as an ASMR-trigger.

The study of Poerio, Blakey, Hostler, & Veltri (2018) has confirmed that ASMR decreases heart rate and increases skin conductance. The authors also expressed confidence that ASMR could become the basis for future therapy.

Differences between ASMR and other audio stimulations

Despite the lack of knowledge and due to the rapid spread, the sensory experience from ASMR began to be mixed up with other audio stimuli. Not everyone understands how ASMR differs from ordinary music or recordings because we may have "goosebumps" even when listening to a particularly catchy composition. Most likely, it would accidentally turn out to be a certain personal trigger that causes such a reaction. The song can be associated with a happy moment, for example, the first dance with your partner. Subsequently, a psychological "anchor" appears, invariably evoking pleasant emotions and memories.

music concert

ASMR differs from songs both in their unexpected simplicity (sometimes you just need to knock on the glass with a fork to trigger a reaction) and in the mechanism of action. Still, the songs have a melody, and sometimes words, so the excitement is conscious as we “live” through the story hidden in the music. However, the effect of music and ASMR can be similar if you find your own triggers.

Very often ASMR is identified with the so-called "audio drugs". They appeared much earlier than ASMR and initially carried a very powerful advertising component. They were positioned as a legal opportunity to get euphoria.

It was believed that with the help of binaural beats, it was allegedly possible to achieve wave activity similar to the work of the brain while taking certain types of drugs.

The main postulates of this hypothesis have been voiced almost since the 60s, however, no reliable research results have ever confirmed the effectiveness of audio drugs for relaxation.

At the same time, there is lots of advertising around audio drugs, and obviously, all of them prefer not to talk about their low effectiveness. Of course, in some cases, listening to such recordings can seem to have an effect, especially if “the user” has a strong belief that they will work. Nevertheless, in most cases, users do not feel anything or get a headache.

Types of ASMR triggers

Conventionally, all ASMR experiences can be divided into visual and sound, or their combination. Tactile ones are also present, but at least one more person is required to experience them.

Visual ASMR triggers

  • role-playing games;
  • hand manipulations;
  • "personal attention";
  • slow and monotonous movements.

Role-playing games include videos in which the hosts act out life situations - examination by an ophthalmologist, dentist, massage therapist, hairdresser, make-up artist, HR manager, or psychologist. Often, visual contact is accompanied by whispering or other relaxing sounds, which immerses the participant in an intimate trusting atmosphere, and results in the relaxation that borders on excitement.

asmr doctor

Hand manipulation often occurs during role-playing games and is a separate genre. These include "cleaning" the aura, getting rid of negative energy, imitation of touches and strokes that are performed directly on the camera lens often using brushes, feathers, etc. Sometimes, to create an additional background sound, the presenters use gloves or cotton pads. As a result, the viewer develops empathy and can mentally transfer the actions that are being performed to himself.

When using the “personal attention” technique, the presenter actively creates a trusting atmosphere with the viewer, addresses him directly, conducts various manipulations such as haircuts, serving dishes, having a snack “together” or a virtual date, or cheers the viewer up. It is in the latter that this technique differs from others. Positiveness, detachment from problems, a charge of cheerfulness - this is what such ten-minute "communication" videos give.

Measured repetitive movements are also excellent visual triggers. This can be painting, handicrafts, cutting fruits and vegetables, working with clay and other activities.

Audio ASMR-triggers

  • whisper;
  • sounds made by limbs;
  • sounds made by the mouth;
  • sounds made by objects;
  • food consumption; 
  • use of letter combinations.

One of the most popular and powerful triggers is whispering and its derivatives, including soft speech, melodic voice, etc. Perhaps this is the legacy of our distant ancestors for whom quiet communication was synonymous with peace and absolute solitude in a cave. The pleasant tingling sensation in the upper part of the head may be associated with an ancient communication ritual that can still be observed in primates, like combing the hair on the crown and making sounds. Perhaps at this time the associative line "whispering, combing out, pleasant sensations" arose.

antistress toy

Tapping with nails, snapping fingers, scratching surfaces, and stroking can put the listener into a state of light trance and make him fully concentrate on what is happening. For some people, other sounds like smacking, clicking, breathing, kissing can have an effect as well. Sometimes the sounds extracted from objects and materials (crunching of plastic or paper packaging, rustling cellophane, creak of rubber gloves, the ringing of crystals) can be used instead.

Food consumption (eating) often stands out among other sounds. Although the sounds of champing, swallowing, chewing and crunching seem unpleasant to many, for some reason, ASMR creators continue to make such videos.

We have given just a few examples of the ASMR-trigger groups. In fact, they are as diverse and limitless as our life itself.

The future of ASMR

ASMR has already become a worldwide phenomenon that may have therapeutic applications for the treatment of both physical and mental ailments. Even though scientists don’t have all the answers yet, its effectiveness is obvious for people who tried it and find it pleasant. Numerous commercials as well as mobile apps such as, for example, Hypnopedia include AMSR. Hypnopedia combines this novel approach with a technique that boosts mental health. Along with a unique feature of reciting transformational affirmations during sleep, it also contains a set of sounds and melodies that induce ASMR which you can combine and customize to your liking. During the development of the app, the results of most recent research in the field of ASMR were taken into account to get the best out of this technique.

You can download Hypnopedia here:

Ссылка App Store

The true expansion of this unique experience is yet to come, especially given the growing demand for online consultation. It is tools such as ASMR that can transform distance and non-invasive therapies if the pandemic continues and in the nearest future.

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