What is ASMR? The science behind the whisper craze sweeping YouTube

You hear a whisper in your ear and you feel a tingle spread across the back of your neck; a chill that ripples over your head and spine; a lapping of euphoria that’s hard to place, but it brings a sense of bliss. If this has ever happened to you, it may be that you’ve experienced an autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR.

ASMR is a slippery phenomenon – one that’s difficult to qualify. It has a dearth of scientific research, but a great deal of popularity, largely thanks to a growing ASMR YouTube subculture. Search for the term and you’ll unearth videos with hundreds of thousands of views, all professing to trigger ASMR with hushed voices and the sounds of light, crisp touches. Despite growing awareness of the term, it also carries a sizeable amount of scepticism.

Descriptions of ASMR along the lines of “head orgasms”, coupled with the fact that many of the videos feature women speaking in intimate whispers, has frequently led to assumptions that the auditory tickles are a sexual kink. While there is indeed an emergent subsection of sexually focused ASMR, those who advocate the technique say it shares more in common with the relaxation properties of massage and meditation than arousal.

“For some people, it’s difficult to understand how a woman filming herself looking lovingly at a camera could not have sexual intentions,” says Emma Smith, who goes by the YouTube name WhispersRed and runs a channel dedicated to ASMR.

“We see similar or more provocative behaviour in advertising and TV, which is usually to sell us something, so it’s no surprise. There are also some groups that like to use the ASMR tag to gain views, which is misleading. As a mother, it only makes me more determined to represent my community well and work hard on my content.”

WhispersRed tells me she first found ASMR videos on YouTube after being in a car accident. Subsequent sleep issues led her to try the technique as a way to relax, and the effects were so strong that she decided to create her own channel. She claims the therapeutic benefits are palpable enough that a number of healthcare professionals have contacted her, to say they either recommend ASMR videos to their patients or at least feel they might be beneficial.

Moving beyond anecdotal evidence, however, is another matter. The difficulty in measuring ASMR, alongside the fact it isn’t felt by everyone, has made it hard for psychologists and cognitive scientists to properly investigate. Indeed, the term itself only first came into use in 2010, thanks in part to the growth of online communities, with people sharing experiences of tingles when hearing certain sounds.

Much of these accounts were initially taken to relate a form of frisson (goosebumps), but scientific interest in ASMR as a specific phenomenon is gradually becoming more common. In 2015, a research paper – written by Dr Emma Barratt and Dr Nick Davis while both were at the University of Swansea – described ASMR as a “flow-like mental state”. As part of the study, the researchers profiled the proliferation of ASMR videos and their effect on subjects suffering from chronic pain and depression. In both cases, there was a suggestion that the effects of ASMR could provide relief in mood and negative sensations.

Further clout is being given thanks to a recent partnership between WhispersRed and health-insurance firm AXA PPP healthcare. The collaboration involves a specially made track, designed to “induce relaxation, aiding in longer sleep duration and healthier sleep patterns”.

According to Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare, ASMR may work by tapping into early associations of infancy: “The soft sounds and whispering associated with ASMR might be directly linked with parent and infant bonding, involving soft and caring vocal tones and focused attention, which in turn can help to create a sense of trust, closeness and emotional security, through the release of certain hormones,” he claims.

While hormones and memories of infancy may very well be at the root of ASMR, these remain hypotheses that have yet to be tested. Indeed, much remains mysterious about the biological causes of localised tingling, despite the lack of physical touch. Some have described the experience being comparable to an auditory-tactile form of synesthesia – a mixing of the senses where some people report “seeing” or “tasting” sounds. There’s also the aspect that some individuals are more susceptible to ASMR than others, while others don’t feel it at all. As a team at the University of Sheffield’s psychology department told The Guardian: “there needs to be a careful balance between scepticism and open-mindedness when investigating ASMR”.

Further evidence may however be on the horizon. Those researchers at Sheffield have recently undertaken research into the “objective” physiological responses of bodies experiencing ASMR. Dr Emma Blakey, one of the co-authors of the study, tell me their paper – currently under peer review in a scientific journal – aims to bolster the initial descriptive results detailed in Barratt and Davis’ 2015 paper.

“We hope to add to this knowledge by providing more ‘objective’ evidence that ASMR is a real experience, by linking the watching of ASMR videos in experiencers and non-experiencers to physiological responses, as well as what they self-report about the experience,” explains Blakey, a lecturer in developmental psychology at Sheffield.

“We wanted to see whether there is an objective physiological response”

“To do this, we got people who have ASMR and those that don’t to watch ASMR videos whilst recording their physiological measures such as heart rate and skin conductance. We wanted to see whether there is an objective physiological response that accompanies the subjective reports of relaxation and ‘tingles’ of ASMR.”

The results of the study will have to wait until they have undergone peer review. Until then, Blakey says more scientific evidence is needed before ASMR videos can be recommended as a clinical tool. That said, she tells me the AXA PPP healthcare collaboration with WhispersRed is an interesting one, and that she hopes it helps some people.

It’s also worth noting that, while the recent interest in ASMR is around a YouTube subculture, the sensation is not new. Certain sounds can induce certain physiological and mental experiences, just as the other senses can kick off memories and cognitive associations. It could be that the sound of soft scraping, stroking or speaking flicks some switch in our subconscious brain – whether that’s a personal memory of childhood or some ancient, pre-human instinct. Growing interest in the subject suggests scientific evidence may soon solidify the phenomena, but it is a response many of us will recognise from whispered words beside our ears.

Image: Gentle Whispering ASMR

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