The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – An internet trend with potential?

 

Have you ever listened to music and felt the chills? Usually this feeling is achieved when we listen to a song we really enjoy. Many even experience goose bumps (even if they are not cold). However, though you might feel goose bumps one time, the same response might not be experienced a second time. Specific actions however, if performed in a particular manner, will always produce a feeling similar to the one described above. The scientific community has termed this phenomenon the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or in short ASMR.  In this article we walk you through the basics of ASMR and maybe one day you can make use of this response after an especially stressful day.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

What is the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response?

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response has gained popularity in recent years. Individuals who claim to have felt the response, report feelings of relaxation, calmness and happiness. Others experience tingling sensation on their skin. Through social media, they share their experiences and a lot of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response inducing material can be found on the web. Even an effective approach in treating conditions such as depression, stress or chronic pain is suggested. To date, however, no clear scientific evidence for this phenomenon could be found as it is a rather new field of research. Besides, not all people are vulnerable to feeling such responses creating problems when trying to make general statements.

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In times of social media, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response has quickly risen to popularity. Especially the video platform YouTube makes use of this new trend in which the channels regularly provide their subscribers with ASMR-inducing content. Usually the person making the videos applies everyday actions such as turning pages of a book, scratching and tapping hard surfaces or most commonly whispering to their audience. These simple actions have proven to induce a very relaxed and calm state in the viewer and it is therefore thought to have medical implications for depression or anxiety.

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a response with a rather narrow range of sensations. The feelings could include tingles, chills or waves in the head whereby the perception of happiness, calmness, sleepiness and comfort are regularly reported. These feelings are usually repetitive and follow a particular pattern. For instance, once the viewer knows he or she feels the response when they watch a particular video, the same video will always trigger a similar response in that same person. Also the way the feeling develops can be predicted: Usually the response is first felt in the head and starts with slight tingling (see Figure below), next travelling down the spine and finally reaching the whole body within a few minutes.

This study has found ASMR to be strongest before going to sleep as 81% of the subjects chose this time window to experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Another factor to improve the chance of you experiencing the response is to seek quiet, relaxed conditions and watching the videos with binaural headphones. Why these triggers actually induce the positive response is not clear yet however a few theories are proposed explaining why we are vulnerable to such triggers:

We humans are social creatures and we seek inter-personal bonding. If it is with our partner, family members, friends or our children does not matter. Videos which induce the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response make use of this and therefore present the viewers with triggers that have a “bonding” character such as gentle touches and soft voices. Therefore when watching such videos, in which a bond between people is observed, our body responds with the release of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These are hormones which contribute to feelings of happiness.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response moving through the body

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response- Barratt; Davis (2015)

Sensations of the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

Various triggers exist which allow someone to experience the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, however the same trigger might not work for everybody. This is dependent on the individual. Some can feel the ASMR related sensations with only one particular trigger, others will always feel the response with numerous triggers and others despite bombarding them with triggers will not experience the feeling at all.

Here is a list of possible factors known to induce the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. As you will see, the response can be induced making use of all our senses. As mentioned, the triggers inducing the feeling produce a very subjective response and might work for some more than for others. At the same time, more triggers exist than listed here. Everyone keen on experiencing the response is therefore asked to keep on experimenting with similar triggers to find the one that works best for them.

  • Listening to people whispering: This is the most common trigger to induce ASMR (according to the prevalence of YouTube videos)
  • Scratching and tapping (on a hard surface)
  • Page turning: Turning the pages of a book might work especially for avid readers, but also for people reading every now and then.
  • Watching others getting their head touched: The response is also induced if your own head is touched.
  • Concentration on a particular task e.g. tutorial for folding napkins
  • Personal attention
  • Watching someone eat: This one is very complex. It can easily gross out some people depending on what food is eaten and the way the food is consumed by the person in the video. It requires the eater to eat “elegantly” and the texture of the food has to be right. Together with the sound of chewing, it can induce the desired relaxation in the viewer.
  • Sticky fingers: Here the sound of the fingers sticking to an object (plastic or balloon) can create a unique sound the viewers appreciate.

Clinical implications of the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

According to experience of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response practitioners, being regularly exposed to the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response can help relieve the following symptoms.

The feelings you get from Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response are similar to feelings achieved when performing mindfulness meditation. However, the exact mechanism of how the symptoms are reduced by Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response remains to be investigated.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and its connection to other phenomena

Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which people experience a sensation in a sense being stimulated and additionally a sensation in an unstimulated sense e.g. individuals assigning a specific sound or taste to numbers they see. A normal person experiences only vision (seeing the numbers with their eyes), but the synesthete will get apart from vision, also the input of sound and taste. However, not all synesthetes are the same and it can also happen they experience a sense of touch when they listen to sounds. As you can see, a connection exists between experiencing synesthesia and the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response as in the latter you get tactile sensations in your spine even though the sound is neutral and therefore not connected to the body. A major difference however is the fact the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response community is able to dampen the intensity of the experience if they wished. A synesthete on the other hand, is not capable of voluntarily ignoring the unstimulated sense (if they associate the number 5 with a loud “bang”, they cannot ignore the “bang” whereas that same perception of the “bang” can be dampened by the person experiencing ASMR).

Misophonia

Misophonia is a sensation where people experience hatred towards a specific sound and develop negative emotional reactions. An example of this could be noise made by a human, for instance when he or she is breathing loud, or in general noise from objects. The feeling you get from misophonia is opposed to the experience of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response in which individuals react to sounds positively. The way the person develops this “disgust” towards very specific sounds in misophonia has not been found out, neither is it considered a psychiatric disorder. However, by investigating the nature of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, we might be one step closer in shedding some light into the nature of misophonia. The only difference between those two phenomena is believed to be the resulting emotion, the final outcome, but not the general mechanism for producing this outcome. Even similarities with synesthesia can be observed, as the neutral stimulus is able to elicit varying emotional responses.

Frisson

Frisson is a similar feeling to the one experienced by ASMR, but with one significant difference. First of all, what is frisson? This phenomenon just like ASMR occurs also in response to sounds, especially melodies. Frisson is this typical feeling you get when listening to a song you really enjoy or you already have an emotional connection with the song. Goosebumps and getting the “chills” are typical responses, even though you are not cold.  One person experiencing Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and another one frisson, will however not have the same feelings. The tingles which are achieved by frisson tend to spread more rapidly throughout the body, whereas in the case of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response it starts in one area and slowly reaches the other parts. The feeling is, therefore, more persistent than in frisson and is of relaxing and content nature, unlike frisson which has a more exciting and emotionally arousing character.

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and the brain

The exact mechanism of ASMR is not understood, however a number of assumptions have been put forward with the aim of identifying what is going on in the brain. Craig Richard, a professor in the Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Virginia’s Shenandoah University, is trying to explain what might be happening when watching such videos.

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Every human on the planet has different cortices (singl: cortex) in their brain each designated to process a specific input. For instance, we have a visual cortex which is devoted to process everything we see and also an auditory cortex being responsible of making sense of all the sounds we perceive.

For the remaining senses like taste, touch and smell, other cortices exist. Normally, each cortex is only responsible for one designated sense. In the case of hearing a loud noise, the auditory cortex would get activated and the other cortices would remain silent. This strict relationship of cortex and form of stimulus however does not apply in the case of experiencing Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. According to Richard, a lot of cross-talk exists between brain regions and ASMR material is thought to promote especially the cross-talk between the auditory and somatosensory cortex (this is the cortex responsible for body awareness and sensation). This somatosensory cortex functions like a “body map” on which each body part has an exact representation (from head to toe). A possible outcome of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is the sounds reaching the auditory and additionally the somatosensory cortex. This could explain why individuals feel the tingles in different body parts, depending what region on the somatosensory cortex the stimulus arrives to.

Another explanation has its origins in specific neurons, termed the mirror neurons. These neurons get activated whenever we are watching someone perform a task and their job is to mimic the person’s movements as they are doing the task. To simplify this, imagine yourself watching a movie scene, in which a person is tortured. Even if you are simply observing the action, the feeling for you is not pleasant. Some people have such a strong activity of mirror neurons, they experience physical pain when they see others suffering from pain. But what is the connection to Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response? It is those mirror neurons having a tight connection to the body map, the somatosensory cortex. So when you watch an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response video in which a person is getting a massage, your mirror neurons get activated mimicking this action. This leads your body to think you are receiving the massage making you feel relaxed.

Experiences with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

Many people have clicked on Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos whether it is for relieving stress, helping them sleep or just out of curiosity. Here is a list of videos which are most viewed. Watch them and see if you get the tingles.

Do you like ASMR? What are your favorite videos? Does it relax you? Please share in the comments below.

Patrick has completed a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing an online course in journalism. His aim is to inform the general public about science-related topics. He looks to achieve this by keeping his work simple, yet precise and informative for everyone.