YouTube isn’t just for cat videos anymore. There’s a growing number of videos of people whispering, role-playing a haircut, playing with slime or turning the pages of a magazine very slowly.
Sounds completely random, but these videos have something in common: They’re meant to trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR for short), which can put you in a chill mood and may also help when you’re feeling anxious or having trouble falling asleep.
Read more: This Song Can Stop Your Anxiety in 8 Minutes
So What Is ASMR?
According to researchers from Swansea University, ASMR is a “sensory phenomenon in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck and at times further areas in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli.”
In short: Certain sounds or visuals elicit a feel-good response. And if you have no idea what we’re talking about, that’s because not everyone experiences ASMR. But those who do — like New York Times writer Stephanie Fairyington — say it makes them feel almost like there are “carbonated bubbles through the back of [the] head.”
Craig Richard, Ph.D., professor at Shenandoah University and founder of ASMR University, is one of the field’s leading researchers and author of Brain Tingles: The Secret to Triggering Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response for Improved Sleep, Stress Relief, and Head-to-Toe Euphoria.
He and his team polled more than 20,000 people about ASMR, and more than 90 percent said ASMR makes them feel relaxed. Additionally, about 80 percent reported feeling calm or soothed, and about 65 percent said they felt sleepy.
What sets off ASMR can vary from person to person, but usually it’s sounds or actions that are repetitive and mundane. It could be watching someone fold a towel, or it “may be related to feelings associated with being nurtured or cared for,” Richard says. These include things like role-playing an interaction with a doctor or pretending to have your makeup done.
How Did This ASMR Trend Get Started?
The sensations linked to ASMR have been around forever, but it’s only within the past decade that it has become something people identify with and talk about. It can be traced back to when ASMR artist (sometimes shortened to ASMRtist) WhisperingLife uploaded a YouTube video in 2009.
The term ASMR was coined a year later, Richard says. From there, it exploded, and a YouTube search today reveals millions of ASMR-related results, including videos from artists like ASMR Darling and Gentle Whispering ASMR, who each have more than 1 million subscribers.
Many of the most popular YouTube videos — which are usually around 30 minutes — are whisper videos, but that’s just one type of ASMR trigger. Be warned: Some videos include sexual undertones (such is the nature of the internet), but that’s not why most people watch them. People most commonly turn to ASMR videos to deal with stress or to help them fall asleep, according to a 2015 Swansea University poll.
What Science Says About ASMR
The calming effects of ASMR “means there is potential for ASMR to be clinically helpful for anxiety, depression or insomnia,” Richard says. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this idea — just skim through the YouTube comments for proof.
But this type of evidence doesn’t exactly hold up in the eyes of the medical community. “The fact is that we don’t know what is going on in the brain to elicit this feeling,” says James Lloyd, M.D., who published an article on ASMR in a 2017 issue of the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine.
Only a few studies have been performed so far, due in part to the fact that it’s difficult to research ASMR since only a small portion of people experience it, Lloyd says. Plus, it’s tough to record what’s going on in the brain when a noisy MRI isn’t conducive to the relaxed mood people need to be in to provoke the response.
But the conclusions from the initial studies are interesting. The 2015 Swansea University study mentioned earlier found that participants reported that ASMR helped temporarily lessen symptoms of depression and chronic pain and put people in better moods.
Researchers are also currently exploring the differences between people who experience ASMR and those who don’t. One 2017 study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, asked 290 individuals who experience ASMR and 290 people who didn’t to complete the Big Five Personality Inventory to see if certain personalities are more likely to respond. The ASMR group scored higher on two traits — openness-to-experience and neuroticism — compared to the control group.
In another 2016 study, this one from the University of Winnipeg, researchers took MRIs of 11 people who experience ASMR and 11 who don’t and found the ASMR group had increased connectivity between parts of the brain associated with being at rest.
But there’s plenty more research that needs to be done. For example, no one knows what percentage of the population experiences ASMR, how ASMR compares to traditional ways of treating anxiety and insomnia and which neurotransmitters and hormones are responsible for the response, Richard says. But on that last point, Richard suspects endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and GABA are in play since they’ve all been linked to relaxation.
How to Try ASMR for Yourself
Want to see if you can experience it? Richard recommends watching a few YouTube videos. He recommends those from WhispersRed ASMR for whispering videos and Deep Ocean of Sounds for sound videos (think crinkling paper and typing on a keyboard). Or you can download an ASMR podcast or app, such as ASMR Player, Silk ASMR and ASMR 6.
Before tuning in, make sure you’re in a quiet, relaxing space and willing to try out different triggers to see what works. “Finding specific triggers is like finding your favorite foods at a buffet: You should sample widely to find those triggers that best suit you,” Richard says. And note that it usually takes about one minute for the tingles to set in, according to a 2015 Social Neuroscience study.
But don’t rely on a nightly YouTube session to replace your usual treatment plan just yet. “I encourage people to first speak with their clinician about any condition they feel they may be suffering from, and then ask about incorporating ASMR into their treatment plan,” Richard says.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you heard of ASMR before? What do you think? Will you give some of these YouTube videos a listen? Do you experience ASMR? What does it feel like for you? Have you noticed it helps reduce your stress or anxiety? Share your stories, thoughts and questions in the comments section below!
Moira Lawler writes about a range of lifestyle topics, including health, fitness, travel, food, and the intersection of them all. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is always down to check out the latest fitness or health trend—and report back with the scoop.