Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. It has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia and may overlap with frisson. ASMR signifies the subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin". It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attention control. Everyone can feel these sensations by watching special videos on YouTube or Instagram.

Why do people watch ASMR-videos?

The concept of ASMR appeared in 2010 but still hasn’t received official status and extensive scientific analysis, despite numerous community discussions and attention from a wide audience. ASMR can be considered as a collective designation of a number of psychophysiological conditions that are caused by a complex of specific effects: audio-visual triggers that are addressed directly to the recipient.

The exposure procedure is filmed on video, where the ASMR artists perform various actions: draw, iron, rustle, whisper, read and much more. At the same time, the session is accompanied by very quiet sounds and speech. Video can also take the form of role-playing games, where the specialist touches the camera and gives the impression of direct live contact (VR glasses can enhance the effect). The videos are hugely popular, and the best of them have multimillion views on Youtube.

The essence of ASMR exposure is to cause the observer to have a special state of unusual relaxation with the help of incentives: visual (smooth movements of hands, head, smile, burning candles, steam from hot tea) and sound (murmur of water, rustling paper, gentle intonations)  People experiencing the effects of the video describe it as a pleasant inhibition, numbness, accompanied by a pleasant tingling, goosebumps, trembling, but in each case individually: the researchers note a wide spread of reactions to the same triggers. The meaning of ASMR videos is not so much in the thematic content as in the background emotional context - in bringing a person into a carefree, comfortable state.

ASMR sessions, according to some experts, protects from annoying background “noise”, and triggers can create an atmosphere of comfort, security, peace and well-being, which helps to reduce anxiety and stress.

Scientists have noticed a similar effect in monkeys experienced ASMR. For two and a half months, they tracked the activity of female macaques, which observed the grooming of other individuals. During the observation, it turned out that the level of nervousness was decreased, animals became calmer, more willing to make contact with other individuals and fed with them.

To date, there are only a few studies, where the topics of discussion are the causes of the occurrence of ASMR and a description of the phenomenon, but the number of experiments is growing. In addition, relation of an autonomous sensory meridional reaction with phenomena such as awareness, mindfulness, and a placebo effect is studied. There is a University of ASMR, which studies the physiological, psychological and social aspects, and also considers ASMR videos as a separate direction of art.

What’s going on in the brain during the response?

When any sound reaches the brain, it’s processed in the auditory cortex. But the sounds that can cause the ASMR, such as whispering, rustling, tapping and others, enter another area responsible for all bodily sensations - the somatosensory cortex. This strip of brain tissue is a “body map”.

Craig Richard, the founder of the ASMR university website, explains brain activity: “The excitation of receptors (tactile, sound, visual) is present in different parts of the sensory cortex, and there are many cross interactions between them. When information moves from the auditory cortex to the somatosensory cortex, the brain regions are activated in such a way as if the body was affected. For example, if a person watches an ASMR video in which they talk about ear cleaning, characteristic scratching sounds can activate the brain part that is responsible for the auricle. Therefore, person can feel as if an impact is being made on one’s ear. ”

Another possible explanation for the ASMR effect can be "mirror neurons" located in the premotor, somatosensory and lower parietal cortex. These neurons are activated when a person watches how someone performs movements or any other actions, and at the same time there is a desire to imitate them - the neural network recreates the motor experience in the head, and also stimulates the appearance of the same sensations as in object of observation.  So, for example, if you watch someone on the video has a massage, mirror neurons can create the impression that the massage is actually taking place and the body feels touch. Recent studies have confirmed that mirror neurons are activated during ASMR, however, in addition many more processes occur in the brain.

In particular, ASMR bears a resemblance to frisson, a chill caused by music. This "chill" is associated with goosebumps and trembling. Scientists have noted that both ASMR and frisson activate the same areas of the brain: the nucleus accumbens, islet lobe, dorsal zone of the anterior cingulate cortex and others. For example, the nucleus accumbens is responsible for positive emotions, therefore it produces dopamine with both effects.  However, the similarities end there: the subjects note the difference between sensations from ASMR and frisson. In addition, the triggers that cause them are different.

Scientists also argue that ASMR activates the same areas of the brain as affiliative behavior, which is responsible for close, trusting relationships (such as between a mother and a child). The similarity here is also noticeable: often the triggers are a quiet gentle voice, attention, gentle touch, care. Pleasant interpersonal relationships, like ASMR, increase the amount of oxytocin in the body and reduce the level of stress hormones.

Regardless of how the effect is caused, an autonomous sensory meridional response releases specific signaling molecules: dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin - which contribute to relaxation, comfort, and euphoria. It produces a unique neural activation, the full study of which has yet to be. In addition, the researchers plan in the future to measure the effect of triggers on heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and other physical and mental health indicators, as well as to consider and make an “inventory” of sensory stimuli in detail.

So far, we can only talk about individual effects. ASMR helps many to relax completely. These videos are very popular among those who have trouble sleeping, high levels of tension, and problems switching to rest. Some may enjoy them. And finally, ASMR can be considered a placebo for loneliness. Anyone who has communication problems can feel an atmosphere of care and attention.


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