ASMR: discovering the 'tingles'

ASMR: discovering the 'tingles'

Imagine feeling your scalp tingle, a warmth spreading from your head to your neck; a pulsation of energy that makes all the hairs on your arms stand on end. Imagine experiencing an orgasm all over your skin. Imagine the trigger for this: someone has spelled ‘nobody’ as ‘know body’.

Our editor, Annabelle, has been experiencing autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) for as long as she can remember, but it was only recently that she found out it had a name.

When Annabelle spoke to a friend about this sensation, they asked her a few questions: what does it feel like? When do you get it? What are the triggers? Her triggers, weird as they seem, are associated with reading or hearing broken or mistakes in English, giving her what she described as ‘shivers’. From Annabelle’s description, her friend explained it wasn’t just goosebumps like those you might get from music, it had a name, and it was ASMR.

You can’t be the editor of a magazine that revolves around the blending of senses and not be somewhat intrigued by this. Here, we asked medical writer Thomas Carvell to tell us more about ASMR: what is it, why do people get it, and how does it work?

Image:   Thư Anh

Image: Thư Anh

‘starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down at the nape like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp’

Discovering the tingles: what is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterised by the tingling sensation beginning across the scalp, before a wave of excitation spreads down the spine, potentially extending to the arms and further.

The intensity and magnitude of the electrostatic-like response is dependent on the auditory and visual triggers that stimulate the response, which vary from person to person. The feeling is not dissimilar to synaesthesia, and could even be considered a sound-emotion form, but the sensations have been described as even more tangible. Perhaps the most sensory description of ASMR is that given by novelist Andrea Seigel, describing it as ‘starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down at the nape like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp.’

Leonn, someone who experiences ASMR, divulged: “I remember being a kid sitting in a doctor’s surgery or hospital, and every time I used to visit them I remember getting tingles and a shuddery feeling after a certain amount of time. I never really thought anything of it, I just remember it feeling nice and relaxing. It was always when I was intensely listening to instructions and someone was being very calm and talking softly to me.”

Some examples of interpersonal triggers include delicate whispering, or non-person-centred triggers such as painting nails or repetitive finger-tapping

Who gets it?

It is unclear as to how many people experience ASMR, simply because people don’t always know they are experiencing it – they see it just as frisson (a shivering sensation) that simply induces reactions such as goosebumps.

Unlike frisson, ASMR is not a response to being surprised, such as unanticipated sounds, but rather ‘the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention’. Thanks to online media and the creation of ASMR-stimulating videos, awareness regarding sources behind the positive sensations that ASMR elicits has exploded, with some online communities even having millions of subscribers to their content. An eclectic compilation of stimuli typically forms a successful ASMR video, with the producers aiming to cater for everyone; stimulating fibres from any and every captivated viewer.

‘ASMR has become something that my brain associates with sleep and really eases me at night’

Many videos focus on interpersonal stimuli. The host, aka, the ASMRtists, create close contact between the host and the viewer, including crisp noises and the feel of a non-scripted, tailored experience.

Some examples of interpersonal triggers include delicate whispering, or non-person-centred triggers such as painting nails or repetitive finger-tapping. Common storyboards for ASMRtists are based around medical examination or beauty therapy – personal, and even invasive, in their contact with the recipient. However, the importance of extra-personal experiences should not be questioned, with some preferring light cognitive tasks such as nail-painting as a stimulus for their desired response.

Good core ingredients required for a sensory response include:

  • a lack of fear and danger

  • personal and inviting in tone

  • unpredictable, yet relaxing

  • object manipulation

Along with these, the ASMRtist usually provides auditory and visual aids that have a sense of realism in their output. With a basic plot prepared, the video then sets a steady stream of stimuli, and should be allowed to simmer for five to ten minutes to leave most viewers suitably satisfied.

Leonn discovered these videos about eight years ago, which saw people whispering words on YouTube. “I found myself listening to it before bed and getting that tingly feeling again. So I started watching them before bed and it became ritual for me to do it before sleep. As the ASMR community grew and more people started exploring it, I found that tapping was a trigger for me as well as doctor and optician role plays.

“I suppose those role plays took me back to my childhood. Going to sleep for me is something that I can’t just turn on like many people, and ASMR has become something that my brain associates with sleep and really eases me at night. If I’m also particularly stressed I will often watch a video during the day to calm myself down, and the soft speaking really helps me to zone out and gather myself.”

deep relaxation can be helpful for treating those with negative mental health scenarios such as anxiety and depression

Image:    Josh Riemer

What makes someone susceptible to ASMR?

Some scientists simply say that it is those who are seeking the experience: both the physical euphoria and the psychological positivity, which are more susceptible to ASMR. The state, sometimes likened to a state of psychological flow, comes twofold: the feeling of being at psychological peak performance, and a feeling of serenity, referred to as passive experience. The latter is of particular interest, as the sense of well-being and deep relaxation can be helpful for treating those with negative mental health scenarios such as anxiety and depression.

Laura Sears uses ASMR to treat anxiety and insomnia. She said that her mind “races with all the things I should have done/need to do tomorrow. ASMR videos help reduce this, as I have them on just a little bit too quiet so that I have to concentrate on what is being said/the noises they are making as opposed to my inner monologue.”

a state of internal tranquillity where self-relevance and self-environment become better represented in the brain’s activity

The exact mechanism that induces the scalp-tingling sensation is yet to be confirmed, but research into the associated neurology has begun.

Recent studies have suggested that it is perhaps the varying structure and function of our neurology that affects the intensity of the experience. Scientists are now mapping the brain’s activity to evaluate what regions are interacting with each other when a positive stimulus causes the bodily response.

Researchers are particularly interested in the activity of the ‘neural default mode network’ (DMN). This network is most active during psychological resting state, when a person’s focus is away from external activity or attention-requiring tasks. You might call this a state of internal tranquillity where self-relevance and self-environment become better represented in the brain’s activity.

The variance in the way the brain functions could indicate why ASMR is sometimes used to manage pain. ASMR could allow the individual’s brain to interchange with an active and resting state, allowing a person to become more ‘open’ and submissive to the unusual sensory experiences ASMR brings.

It's possible that other resting-state networks could also be involved, but, just like the physical sensation of a tingle on a scalp, it is ASMR that sparks interest, discussion and research.

Thomas Carvell has an MSc in Biomedical Blood Sciences, and works as a freelance editorial consultant for a medical communications agency. He has a particular interest for drug re-purposing.