Author: Ronan Murphy
What is ASMR? The litte known phenomenon with a large online following.
You may have experienced them before. I’m not talking about the chills you get from music, or from hearing a particularly inspiring speech, known as frisson. I’m also not talking about sexual stimulation, though there’s no doubt that what I’m talking about is intimate. I mean the tingly feeling you might’ve felt at the hairdressers, or from being read a bedtime story when you were younger. You might’ve asked a friend or family member about it, and the confusing glare you were met with was enough to let you know that maybe this was one of those grown-up things you weren’t supposed to talk about. And until about six years ago, nobody did.
What I’m talking about has a name- ASMR. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, but don’t let the new-age sounding name fool you. ASMR is very real, and it boasts a sizeable internet community dedicated to the creation of videos intended to elicit this effect. The videos cover a wide variety of content, but popular topics are role plays, such as cranial nerve examinations or haircuts, ‘personal attention’ videos, ‘sounds’ videos making use of common auditory ASMR triggers such as tapping or brushing, and a personal favourite of mine, videos where someone explains something they’re passionate about.
They can range from extraordinarily dull hour-long loops of water being poured, to high production value sci-fi sagas, but the primary goal remains the same- to relax, and to trigger this sensation.
You might be wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of this, if it’s only a slightly pleasurably tingly sensation in the head and the back of the neck, but it’s more than that. There are accounts of ASMR helping people deal with anxiety, and even chronic pain. Many more report it to be an effective sleep-aid, myself included. I think, however, that the most important factor is the community itself. I won’t pretend it’s somehow uniquely free from drama, but the atmosphere is remarkably cooperative. ASMR content creators are working towards the same goal, not competing, and the fact that over 99% of them are amateurs making videos for free certainly helps. Even comments on the Youtube videos tend to be supportive, an unusual trend given the site’s standards.
So far, the phenomenon has gone almost completely undocumented in the scientific literature. In my opinion, this is owed to two main factors. Firstly, that there is still doubt about whether the phenomenon is ‘real’, and secondly that it was only identified six years ago.
As a former psychology student, I find the first factor particularly disheartening. There’s no denying that this is something which is occurring, unless you’re willing to accuse millions of people of being part of an elaborate hoax. There is obviously something transpiring, and it’s the duty of scientists to find out what it is. In my opinion, the most compelling suggestion is that it’s a vestigial grooming response, but that doesn’t say much for what’s going on in the brain, whether other animals experience it, or why some people do not seem to experience it at all.
In my opinion, this phenomenon deserves much more exposure from psychologists and neuroscientists, as the research which does exist is fascinating. One of the few studies to cover ASMR, Barrett and Davis (2015), compares it to synaesthesia and ‘flow states’. Another, Novella (2012) hypothesises that ASMR is a type of minor seizure.
There is another mystery here, too. How could a direct perceptual experience go unnoticed for so long? We know that it’s not a new phenomenon. Virginia Woolf described it in Mrs. Dalloway, without naming it. There’s absolutely no reason that ancient cultures wouldn’t have noticed it, but I’m aware of no mention of it prior to Woolf’s. I don’t think there’s a satisfying explanation for why it took so long for us to discover it, but I think there’s an important lesson to take away from the fact that it did: uncharted territory is always closer to home than we think.