Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, sounds fairly scientific. Even when googling and watching videos on youtube on what exactly ASMR is, they sound scientifically sound and technical. However, there is little to no neurobiological information to back up this talk.
ASMR is a stimulus and response phenomenon. It is a physical reaction that is described consistently as a tingling sensation that centers at the back of the neck. The sensation then travels either upwards toward the top of the head or down the spine. This concrete effect though has a much more broad and unwieldy cause.
The stimulus can be seen in the wide variety of youtube videos and other media that are widely available online to help illicit this sensation, which has been referred to as a “head orgasm.” The triggering videos range from the most basic of a woman softly whispering or tapping nails on wooden objects to in-depth role playing videos of whispering women feigning full hair cuts and face massages to the camera. The rationale behind the phenomenon has been hypothesized as being centered on personalized attention, a sense of intimacy, or simply a physiological reaction the sounds themselves1.
As our society has become more and more disconnected from human contact and living in worlds of anonymity online, there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of ASMR, which I find more than coincidental. Even as we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs2, the feelings of love and belonging are only outweighed by safety and physiological/survival needs. There appears to be a balance in the shift to fulfilling this need with a new media response through ASMR videos, while the traditional mechanisms are slowly disappearing.
This term ASMR was coined in 2010 by cybersecurity professional Jennifer Allen in first developing an online forum to discuss this phenomenon3. The psychological and scientific communities have not been heavily involved to-date on exploring this topic, aside from three peer reviewed articles – the earliest dating back to 20134,5.
In a January 8th article just this year, The Guardian6 explored the initial study, interviewing the scientists behind it, Emma Barratt and Nick Davis. According to Davis, “We hope our work will provide a platform for more sophisticated work in the future, but we saw it as a starting point.” They have opened the door in acknowledging the existence of this phenomenon, but the scientific community’s next move forward from this study would be to find the physiological explanation for the sensation, also known as frisson.
Lauren Ostrowski Fenton, a well-known producer of ASMR videos, believes the frisson is caused by a release of oxytocin7, but with such limited understanding of the body’s chemistry, especially concerning what she refers to as the “cuddling hormone” there is little weight to this claim.
Frisson, as it is currently understood, lasts for a few seconds, but some ASMR users claim that their experience can continue for hours. The most well-known frisson phenomenon has certain music as the stimulus. This has been theorized to be due to an increase in endogenous opioid peptides, which is a phenomenon studied for over the last 30 years8.
In clinical practice, ASMR has begun to be explored as a treatment for anxiety and depression, but without further research, the success is currently unknown. I anxiously await further study on this topic and to find if there is a way to pinpoint the trigger that can be better used in a therapeutic setting. Additionally, there is a need to find the connection between musical frisson and ASMR.
2Maslow, A.H. (1943). “Psychological Review 50 (4) 370–96 – A theory of human motivation”. psychclassics.yorku.ca.
4Etchells, P. (2016, January 8). ASMR and ‘head orgasms’: What’s the science behind it? The Guardian. Retrieved March 4, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/jan/08/asmr-and-head-orgasms-whats-the-science-behind-it
5Grounsell, L. (2016, January 6). Would you go to bed with the ‘whispering mother’? Online craze sees thousands of people watch videos of woman brushing her hair and sipping coffee to help them nod off Read more: Http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3387631/The-whispering-mother-Lauren-Ostrowski-Fenton-sends-thousands-people-sleep-brushing-hair-sipping-coffee.html#ixzz41xBxaG9Z
7Andersen, Joceline (11 November 2014). ‘ Now you’ve got the shiveries: affect, intimacy, and the ASMR whisper community’. Television and New Media. Online version:doi:10.1177/1527476414556184. Subsequently published in print: Andersen, Joceline, ‘Now you’ve got the shiveries: affect, intimacy, and the ASMR whisper community’. Television & New Media. Vol. 16, No. 8. pp683-700.
8Valorie N Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher, Robert J Zatorre. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726