The Brain Tingles: ASMR & Relaxation

By Amanda Jowsey

Many people are now turning to ASMR to relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia

Eric McFeely of Buffalo: “Having your scalp scratched and having a shoulder massage are both pleasurable sensations, right? But it wasn’t until I learned about ASMR that I realized it was a totally different degree of ‘good feeling,’” he says.

A soft voice, a hairbrush slowly gliding across your scalp, the quiet sound of a page turning in a book. 

If any of these experiences give you goosebumps, you may be one of the people who experience a phenomenon known as ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, a tingling sensation that usually starts in the scalp and travels down the back of the neck and spine. 

Feelings of peace, comfort and contentment follow.

Many people are now turning to ASMR to relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia. 

First coined in 2010 by a woman named Jennifer Allen, the term ASMR finally seemed to legitimize a unique feeling that was hard to explain and that was not experienced by everyone else. Many people feel it early in life, while others do not until later. Perhaps they didn’t realize it until someone else gave it a name and mainstreamed this sensation.

My first experiences with ASMR were early on in life, when my dad would brush my hair after a bath, watching Bob Ross or listening to my fourth grade librarian teach a lesson. It immediately elicits feelings of comfort, protection and sleepiness.

The feeling is caused by soothing audio-visual stimuli. The most common ASMR triggers for those who experience the phenomenon include whispering or soothing voices, gentle tapping or scratching sounds, soothing physical touch and personal attention (massages, haircuts, a comfortable physical exam, an embrace, getting your nails done), eating, and page turning. There are a wide range of triggers that vary from person to person and it’s not necessarily specific or replicable.

Eric McFeely of Buffalo never knew there was a name for ASMR, but he is one of the people who experiences it.

“It’s hard to remember when it’s triggered for me because it’s always been inconsistent,” he explained. “I’ve always just lumped it in with other good sensations. Having your scalp scratched and having a shoulder massage are both pleasurable sensations, right? But it wasn’t until I learned about ASMR that I realized it was a totally different degree of ‘good feeling.’”

He doesn’t feel it with high intensity, but it is a measurable instance when it does happen.

“For me, it is only triggered by an overall experience. A moment in time with all the right conditions, I guess. Maybe it’s the right combination of visual, audible and physical touches all put together. Maybe that’s why it’s rarer for me,” McFeely said.

We talked about the ASMR community online and its substantial growth over the years.

“I think that a lot of people have unique sensory input processing, but we all learn to cope in ways that homogenize us without ever thinking too much about it. Now with the internet, we’re better able to talk about and define those things. We can collect and quantify our more specific needs,” he said.

“In a small community, you might be the only one out of a thousand people with a certain experience, so you bury it down so as not to be ‘weird,’ but on the internet you can find 50,000 people who understand it completely,” McFeely said.

“Another thing is simply that the adult world is full of stress, and we’re all looking to be soothed and relaxed in one way or another.”

Even live ASMR studios are popping up, like Whisperlodge NYC, the world’s first live ASMR performance, “a 90-minute immersive performance with special one-on-one treatments designed to relax the mind and body, expand awareness, and heighten the senses.

An article in the Journal of Trends in Cognitive Sciences summarized ASMR as “sounds that feel like touch.” Their study suggests that the “anatomical and functional links” between auditory and sensory processing form the basis of ASMR. “People enjoy a sense of touch from auditory (and often audiovisual) stimuli,” the article explained.

According to a paper in a behavioral neuroscience publication, “ASMR is easy to use, and appropriate for wellness purposes on a wide range of people.” The study matched other similar findings that ASMR videos or experiences cause a decrease in heart rate, feelings of joy, safety and comfort—all of which can benefit anxiety, depression and insomnia.

Another study found that those who get these tingles tend to have higher levels of anxiety, or histories with insomnia than those who do not experience the sensation. Interestingly, it also seems that most of the videos involve personal attention, affection or caretaking scenarios. Is it possible that ASMR is a biological response entwined with our inner children, with our need to feel safe and secure?

Craig Richard, PhD from Shenandoah University in Virginia has been documenting and researching the phenomenon. He founded ASMR University, a website dedicated to his studies. Richard speculates that the feeling is related to parent-infant bonding. During ASMR, he said, the body releases endorphins which bind with receptors that are “best known for inhibiting pain while also stimulating pleasure, relaxation and sedation.”

Ultimately, ASMR may trigger these core experiences that formed our sense of safety and comfort as children.

Further research is needed to understand it fully, especially in relation to sleep, anxiety and depression. But it seems that the online world is on board with using this as a new method of coping with the extreme stress we feel day to day.

Millions of ASMR “roleplay” videos can be found online, depicting anything from a relaxing haircut to a pampering spa day or face painting session. These videos, if watched out of context with no background information, may appear strange and at times comical to some, but make no mistake, there are people out there who experience real and positive effects from watching them.