Stress seems to belong to our age as reliably and annoyingly as Facebook ads for discount designer sunglasses. So we’re always looking for ways to relax. When we heard that people are turning to something called ASMR for tension reduction, we wanted to know: Is this really a thing?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s a recently discovered phenomenon, and it refers to a mildly euphoric feeling coupled with scalp tingling and pleasant “shivers” that can be triggered by soft, sibilant sounds like whispering, crinkling of soft plastic, rustling paper, and the like.
For a long time, this was the sort of thing various people experienced, but didn’t understand—or even know that others felt it, too. Then videos started popping up on YouTube featuring pretty people—usually women—whispering into a microphone in barely-audible tones. Most people would scroll on by, but for people who had experienced The Tingle, these videos were a revelation. Among the most popular ASMR channels are SAS-ASMR, with over seven million subscribers, and ASMR Darling, with more than two million. Check them out to see if you’ll respond to the whisper.
The Power of Softness
You can even choose ASMR as a going-to-sleep option on relaxation apps like Calm. The HBO show Kidding featured a sexy scene in which Judy Greer is introduced to the tingle in the bath with her lov-ah, and a millionaire obsessed with an ASMR YouTuber makes for an interesting plot twist in The Arrangement, a 2017 novel by Sarah Dunn. Maybe you caught Zoe Kravitz in Michelob’s ASMR Super Bowl ad.
But does ASMR actually do anything? Can it help you relax?
Giulia Poerio, PhD, had experienced the sensation as far back as she could remember, but when she was studying psychology at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., she was surprised to find that nobody had researched it. Interestingly, there were studies about the opposite feeling, misophonia, when, say, gum chewing or wet smooching in a movie makes your skin crawl.
Now Poerio has co-authored two studies about ASMR, showing that people react physiologically to the whispery videos with goosebumps and in ways that were comparable to doing yoga or mindful meditation; on average, their heart rate slowed three beats per minute, a significant difference. Worth noting: Only a certain portion of the population “gets it.” Many find ASMR videos pleasant enough, yet never feel a tingle.
Or you might be like a certain reporter for a certain website, and no matter how much you write about them, hoping to feel something, you simply find the videos unbearable—experiencing standard ASMR as if you had misophonia. Sigh. At least we still have cannabis.