Unpacking ASMR: What exactly is it, and is it an effective sleep or relaxation tool?
You probably heard of ASMR in passing, but it can be a little hard to explain for those that haven’t experienced it. It is commonly used in a similar fashion to white noise or nature sounds to promote relaxation and/or to lull a restless mind into sleep. Sleep Foundation explains the phenomenon in more detail in their article “What is ASMR and How Can It Help You Sleep?”.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It is a deep relaxation and comforting tingling of the scalp and head that some people experience in response to quiet sounds. Some examples including whispering, soft sounds combined with rhymical movement and guided personal meditation. The ASMR trend has only had a name since 2010, but it has exploded online as many people swear by ASMR triggering media to calm an overactive mind and settle into sleep.
Given its relatively new introduction into public awareness, it is important to note that research is limited in regard to just how affective ASMR can be, particularly if it can be utilized more strategically for sleep disorders and other ailments. Yet, whether or not people have recognized it, ASMR is a phenomenon that many people most likely have experienced, and it can possibly be utilized as a relaxation technique on a case-by-case basis. One study conducted by the Public Library of Science (PloS One) has 81% of participants reporting that they had experienced an ASMR in the past. The age which people first notice the ASMR feeling can vary as well, if indeed a person notices them at all.
When can ASMR occur?
By definition, different people have different triggers that are more likely to create an internal ASMR response. There are four common categories that people often cite as ASMR triggers: whispering, personal attention, slow movements and crisp sounds. And oddly enough, while ASMR typically refers to an audio-induced relaxation response, there is a growing community and media library of ASMR-themed videos that often include visual cues that can also trigger a response in some people. Role play is also a common focus, invoking calming personal attention scenarios like getting a massage or haircut.
What happens to the brain during ASMR?
In short, the science of how ASMR impacts the brain is still being researched. Yet, researchers do have some intriguing hypotheses that appear to have some convincing evidence. One study conducted by BioImpacts (BI) conducted fMRI brain scans of people while they experience ASMR. Participants exhibited whole brain activity during ASMR tingling. Brain activity was also noted in the area of the brain associated with social understanding, behaviors and self- awareness. A working hypothesis among some researchers correlates the effects of ASMR to the effects of social grooming in primates, so it is a possibly an evolutionary holdover.
It would make sense that ASMR is a social response, as the areas of the brain that ASMR activates are connected to hormones like dopamine, and endorphins – all of which can promote feelings of relaxation and comfort. Yet ASMR is a more complex concept requiring further study, due to reports from some who find ASMR actually triggering excitement, increased alertness or even irritation for those with sound sensitivities. In general, it appears ASMR’s effects are hard to track so far as each person’s response to a particular trigger can differ. ASMR is currently being explored by researchers to see if it can help alleviate wide ranging issues such as depression, anxiety and even chronic pain.
Avenues to Try ASMR
To see if ASMR is helpful for you in promoting sleep or relaxation, experimentation is going to be key to see if ASMR media elicits a pleasing response or if you are even able to experience this type of response.
Here are some recommendations for ASMR playlists and videos to get you started. Pro tip: It is recommended to try headphones for full immersion and to see if you can utilize ad-free sources as advertisements can be disruptive.
- Apple ASMR- Apple created a series of nature focused ASMR videos featuring beautiful calming landscapes, repetitive sounds and soft, soothing narration. Headphones are recommended for the best experience.
- Top ASMR Artist Channels on Youtube- It’s fascinating to see how many often self-taught ASMR artists have learned how to create compelling content and become influencers in this new space. Feel free to check out all the amazing individuals and videos connected to the link provided. The top three on this list go by artist names of Gibi ASMR, Tingting and Gentle Whispering.
- Top Spotify ASMR Artists and Playlists- This list features many of the same beloved ASMR artists from video formats, just in an audio-only form.
- ASMR Bedtime Stories- This is a fun sub-genre of ASMR, where voice artists read you softly to sleep and sometimes incorporate other soothing sounds. Try “Just Sleep- Bedtime Stories for Adults” for a good intro to this style.
- Poerio GL, Blakey E, Hostler TJ, Veltri T. More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. PLoS One. 2018 Jun 20;13(6):e0196645. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0196645. PMID: 29924796; PMCID: PMC6010208.
- Lochte BC, Guillory SA, Richard CAH, Kelley WM. An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Bioimpacts. 2018;8(4):295-304. doi: 10.15171/bi.2018.32. Epub 2018 Sep 23. PMID: 30397584; PMCID: PMC6209833.
For better insight into the inner workings of the brain, please learn more about Life U’s NeuroLIFE Institute (NLI).NeuroLIFE Institute is an applied clinical neuroscience clinic located on the campus of Life University. The NLI’s mission is to provide the highest level of chiropractic neurological care and to be a resource for patients and doctors locally, nationally and internationally.
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