Sucharita Ghosh found it incredibly comforting to watch videos on car cleaning posted by Mitch aka The Detail Geek, a Canada-based YouTuber. Especially when it came to getting her mind out of the work-related clutter and stress.
“There was a time when I made a conscious effort to switch off from work during the lunch hour and take refuge in ASMR. The idea was simple: to switch off, relax and watch something that doesn’t require a lot of focus but also helps me to unwind,” she says.
What started as a one-time comforting exercise turned into a regular half-hour-long lunch break ritual. “It really helped to calm me. The narration and the audio were soothing, and the video length fitted perfectly into my lunch duration,” admits the user experience (UX) design lead from Bengaluru.
She is certainly not alone in taking comfort in these oddly satisfying videos. From reducing stress to helping people fall asleep, researchers feel that the trend is more than just viral content, is here to stay ̶ for the right reasons.
How experts describe ASMR
Sucharita’s reaction is what experts best describe as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) or brain tingles which is a warm, tingling and pleasant sensation starting at the crown of the head and spreading down the body.
“Love listening to the sound of waves, car wash videos, the rustling of dry leaves, or the gentle crinkling sound of paper and plastic? Chances are that your brain has taken a liking to ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Research suggests that one of the most popular searches on YouTube and viral videos on Instagram being curated by vloggers and influencers is more than just a happy trance-like sensation for the brain.”
For ASMR researcher and professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, Dr Craig Richard, it is a soothing and relaxing feeling which causes tingles in one’s head along with a sense of deep relaxation that one feels – for example when getting a haircut, while listening to someone turn magazine pages, or listening to someone’s soft and soothing talk.
Describing the process to Happiest Health, Dr Giulia Poerio, who is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, calls it a tactile sensation that is pleasant, warm and fuzzy.
More than a tingle
Research in this area suggests that ASMR has come a long way from being a tingling sensation. “We now have very good evidence to suggest that people with ASMR aren’t making it up. They do show this kind of consistent change in their physiology when they experience ASMR,” says Dr Poerio who has been extensively researching ASMR.
Her 2018 study was a test to see whether there was any physiological correlation of the ASMR experience. “We wanted to look at what was going on in the body physiologically when someone experiences ASMR,” says Dr Poerio.
One of the findings, she says, was that people who experience ASMR when they watch related videos show a reduction in heart rate; the rate is in tune with the ASMR benchmark measure of slower heart beat when something is physiologically relaxing. Interestingly, these reductions in the heart rate were quite like other methods of relaxation and stress reduction, such as mindfulness and music therapy.
In the case of Sucharita Ghosh, watching car wash videos not only helped her to mentally unwind but also prepared her to get on with her post-lunch work commitments even as her stress levels stayed in check.
“Several published research studies support [the theory] that ASMR is helpful in decreasing stress, improving sleep and lowering heart rates. Many patients seek treatments for reducing their anxiety, overcoming their insomnia and lowering their heart rate,” says Dr Craig Richard who is also the author of Brain Tingles: The Secret to Triggering Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response for Improved Sleep, Stress Relief and Head-to-Toe Euphoria.
“We now have very good evidence to suggest that people with ASMR aren’t just making it up. The reduction in heart rate when one experiences ASMR is quite like other methods of relaxation and stress reduction such as mindfulness and music therapy.” — Dr Giulia Poerio, lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex.”
Dr Richard points out that his published brain scan study showed that specific areas of the brain are active when someone is experiencing ASMR. “Some of these regions highlight the likely involvement of dopamine and oxytocin. Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, may be central to ASMR because the behaviours that trigger oxytocin release are like the behaviours that trigger ASMR. Additionally, oxytocin is known to stimulate feelings of relaxation and comfort, which are like the feelings described when experiencing ASMR,” he adds.
Dr Giulia Poerio in her study also showed that watching ASMR videos result in a significant drop in heart rate, confirming a physiological state of relaxation.
Not a common feeling
Bengaluru-based Amrutha Varshini, a product manager at a tech company, admits that it did not give her the brain tingles she was expecting. “I tried watching ASMR videos to soothe my nerves. These were soothing to the ear, but I didn’t feel the ‘tingles’ that ASMR is known for,” she confesses.
Studies show that people who experience ASMR are unique and not everyone can experience it. A 2022 study done on it and sensory sensitivity by Dr Poerio looks at why some people experience it, and others do not. “One hypothesis is that people who experienced the brain tingles are more sensitive to their external environment. So, they might be more sensitive to sounds or sights, or they might be more sensitive to touch and things like that,” she says.
Those who feel it observe the world in a more heightened sensory capacity than those who do not. “If you are somebody who experiences it, you will be more sensitive to aesthetic experiences, like appreciating art or such things. So, people with ASMR can also be classified as what they call highly sensitive people.”
An EQ link?
Those with a high emotional intelligence quotient or EQ are another differentiating factor. “That’s something that has been shown in several studies and some neuroimaging studies, too. The idea is that because they’re better able to pick up subtle cues from the environment, that can also be social cues, such as people’s facial expression,” says Dr Poerio.
She points out that there is some evidence to suggest that people with ASMR might be more empathetic as well; she is currently working on a project to study this corelation.
Dr Giulia Poerio feels that there is much to explore in this very under-researched area. “We know from people telling us that they use ASMR for different things. Many say they use it for anxiety, depression, insomnia, loneliness or even getting prepared for medical procedures that they might be finding anxiety-provoking, like going to the dentist. There are a variety of ways in which people already use ASMR content to help them,” she says.
One of her upcoming works includes experimenting with ASMR in a care home setting. “We’re looking at whether it could work in a care home setting with older adults. That’s one avenue that we’re exploring now. And that’s a collaboration with Norwich University of the Arts.”
Talking about the future, Dr Richard believes, “Health professionals will be more likely to recommend ASMR to patients as more clinical studies are done to further confirm the potential benefits.”
ASMR is described as `the subjective experience of “low-grade euphoria“ characterized by “… 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.
A genre of videos intended to induce ASMR has emerged, over 13 million of which had been published on YouTube by June 2018.