Clink, Rustle, Clack, Swoosh: The Basics and Benefits of ASMR
ASMR calms and engages with materials that clink, rustle, clack, swoosh, brush, smoosh, and slurp.
The tapping of fingernails on a hard plastic cassette tape, the rustling of paper, words whispered uncomfortably close to a microphone. Small and repetitive hand gestures, like stroking a cat’s upstretched chin. Clicking laptop keys. Licking lips. Clinking marbles. Opening and crinkling cellophane.
Close your eyes to imagine these sounds; they are basic but evocative gestures that are part of everyday life. We see them and we hear them. We can imagine them, imagine ourselves doing them. For some people, hearing these sounds, under the right circumstances, will make their spine tingle, their mood lighten, their racing mind go quiet. They may even fall asleep. The sound of a pen scratch, the tap of a paintbrush handle, stirring ice cubes, pouring tea. This litany is a cacophony for some, instant relaxation for others.
An online community of people self-reporting their responses to these sensations—euphoria, calm, excitement, curiosity, bafflement—formed and grew. Eventually, around the late aughts, the sensation was given a name by Jennifer Allen: autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. Since then, a seemingly fringe, quirky occurrence has become part of the mainstream.
ASMR Close Up
Some describe ASMR as the relaxing tingling of the scalp or spine in response to specific triggers or movements. The phenomenon is characterized by sensory-emotional feelings—pleasure; wellbeing; tingling in the head, neck, shoulders, or spine; a “brain orgasm”—that derive from something listened to or experienced. And it is usually nonsexual, though it can be sensual and intimate. People say they feel calm, less anxious, more lighthearted, and less stressed after ASMR experiences.
However, it’s not for everyone, and not everyone experiences it optimally. For those who do feel the brain tingles, they can essentially prescribe themselves a neo-folk remedy for feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and stress.
Evidence of its healing powers is still mostly anecdotal, documented online on YouTube, Reddit, and other community-driven sites. There are fewer than a dozen scientific research papers published on ASMR, but new university-driven studies are cataloged on ASMR every few months. Scientists and psychologists are still figuring out how it works.
In the 2018 book Brain Tingles, author Craig Richards, PhD, who is one of the pioneers of ASMR study, draws a connection between oxytocin, the “feel good” or bonding hormone, and the feelings of being cared for and soothed that ASMR content creates. Richards is also a creator of ASMR University, a centralized reference website on the phenomenon. There he writes, “Triggers that stimulate ASMR in individuals may actually be activating the biological pathways of interpersonal bonding and affiliative behaviors,” such as between parent and infant, family members, in friendship, and in romantic partnerships.
ASMR stimuli and bonding behaviors are notably similar (trust, gentle touch, soft voices)—and have similar results (comfort, relaxation, and security). The basic biological process of bonding involves specific behaviors that stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield's Department of Psychology investigated whether ASMR can benefit physical and mental health and whether it can be reliably experienced (as through regular practice or therapy). The study found that those who experience ASMR showed significantly lower heart rates when watching ASMR videos and significant increases in positive emotions such as relaxation and social connection. Sheffield’s Dr. Giulia Poerio says, “Our studies show that ASMR videos do indeed have the relaxing effect anecdotally reported by experiencers,” says one of the researchers, Dr. Giulia Poerio. “The average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness.”
The Art of ASMR: Where to Find ASMR Content Online
ASMR content is created and uploaded online by so-called “ASMRtists,” many of whom are wildly creative amateurs or hobbyists (though the category of professional ASMRtist is growing every year). There are as many ways to listen or watch ASMR content as there are people who wish to do so. Each view or listen is inspired by a desire to make oneself feel better in some way; the people who make these videos and audio tracks are motivated by a desire to help, soothe, or stimulate others: an altruistic, healing feedback loop.
What if I Don’t Respond to ASMR?
Does the phrase “brain tingle” leave you feeling cold? You might be one of the many millions who does not experience autonomous sensory meridian response. You may not be able to train yourself to feel it, though some research indicates if you believe you should feel the tingling sensations, your brain could learn to anticipate it (much like phobias are learned and honed over time).
Other sensory-emotional phenomena that might resonate instead include frisson (also known as aesthetic or musical chills), which is the shivering, goosebump-raising thrill or excitement you may feel from listening to music. Misophonia, on the other hand, is the sensation of sounds that make you frustrated, panicked, or even frenzied, like snoring, whining, nails on a chalkboard, and so on. Synethesia is when one type of sensory input triggers another, seemingly unrelated sense, such as seeing music in color.
People who experience ASMR are as selective about their preferences as people are about favorite foods or music. Some content is pleasing to many people; some are acquired tastes. The vastness of the ASMR virtual library means you’ll find your favorite taste, if you’re willing to explore. The most important element to getting started consuming ASMR content is to find out what you like, since it is such a deeply personal experience.
ASMR stimuli can be grouped into four general categories:
- Touch (what you touch or watch someone touch or interact with): fingernails tapping, turning pages of a magazine, manipulating objects that click.
- Visual/Observational (what you see/watch): slow, rhythmic, sensual (but nonsexual) gestures; soft lighting.
- Audio triggers (what you hear): whispering, soft talk; talking slowly using gentle, soothing tones and volume, emoting; eating sounds; crackling fire.
- Scenario/participatory (role-playing): massages, spa treatments, barber/salon visits, medical exams, tea service, drinks mixed and poured as though at a bar, applying makeup.
According to ASMR University, ASMR stimuli share many of the same qualities. They’re repetitive, methodical, occur at a steady pace and volume, and non-threatening. The creators of these stimuli convey particular dispositions, which include kind, caring, empathic, attentive, focused, trustworthy, dedicated, and expert.
Experiment and watch many different styles of video and audio content. What feels pleasurable? What calms you? What agitates you? Tuning into your response—which may be involuntary and unequivocal—is part of sorting out your ASMR preferences. Listening to a bedtime story may help you sleep, but the gentle tapping of fingernails on wooden beads might focus your mind and settle racing thoughts. Slurping noodles or crunching honeycomb may leave you nonplussed, but there are thousands of alternatives.
Navigating Resources Online
YouTube is far and away the largest and ever-replenishing resource for ASMR audio and video, providing endless free choice. A tolerance for ads is required, as well as the patience to discern and discover content that resonates with you. Keep in mind that not all content is created equal, and not all content will be beneficial or appealing to you. For the ASMR novice or curious viewer, YouTube offers unlimited choice and depth, as well as breadth; you will find what elicits brain tingles or euphoria for you, and the site’s algorithms will be sure to deliver you more of that.
Audible’s library of audio content includes original productions of whispery bedtime stories, recordings of situational role-plays (such as getting a haircut or setting up a tea party), and even sleep hypnosis.
Listening to podcasts (through Apple, Spotify, Audible, and other apps) is another free and diverse option for fresh, bingeable content. A search for ASMR yields dozens of options, spanning the spectrum of content categories (from shuffling footsteps on concrete to sensual role play).
ASMR can also be triggered in person, like when attending a class or a performance. Intimate, immersive ASMR events, such as New York City’s Whisperlodge, were growing in popularity pre-pandemic.
You can of course listen or watch ASMR content wherever you’d like; unlike binaural music or hypnosis, its intention is not to enter an altered state. If you are watching or listening to alleviate anxiety or depression, you might want to create a ritual space, or at the very least a regular routine. Clear your schedule, set aside enough time to achieve the desired effect. Find a quiet and private space, if you prefer privacy. Instead of streaming content as a distraction, make a calming ritual out of it and allow the preparation of the space to help with beneficial effects.
More Anecdotal but Delightful Benefits of ASMR
It can relax you. Like other sounds people consider calming—downtempo music, rain drumming on a roof, ocean waves caressing sand, lullabies—some ASMR content is simply relaxing. You do not need to experience four-alarm brain tingles to reap the benefits of listening to a series of bedtime stories, quasi-whispered by trained actors. Lots of ASMR content offers equal-opportunity engagement.
It can engage and (quietly) distract you from online and media noise. Even a shallow dive into ASMR content yields a fascinating trove: endlessly creative use of materials that clink, rustle, clack, swoosh, brush, smoosh, and slurp. ASMRtists are virtuosos, offering novelty, calm, and heartfelt engagement with sometimes little more than their voice.
It can augment your mindfulness practices. Some research has shown that the ability to experience ASMR correlates to an openness to mindfulness practices and a capacity for interoception. In other words, if you experience ASMR, your neurobiology is likely primed for meditation, visualization, yoga nidra, and more. Find a category of ASMR you are attuned to and integrate it into a daily practice: unwinding after a long workday or destressing after a contentious discussion.
It can give your mind a breather at bedtime. Like other relaxing music or soundtracks, ASMR audio and videos can be queued up in a playlist to help you get to sleep. The comments fields of many online ASMR videos are stacked with grateful affirmations from viewers who never managed to stay awake for the entire thing.
Keep Your Brain Tingling with “5 Ways to Use Sound for Energy Tingling.”
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