Why ASMR triggers make you feel so damn good, according to science

Making brain-tingling videos is fairly new, but the feeling itself is not.

Maxine McCrann
Healthy or Hype?

ASMR has been trending long enough that most people have at least heard of this brain tingling sensation. Nowadays, tons of people use ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) to reduce anxiety and fall asleep, and there are ASMRs for every imaginable niche, anxiety, and audience. But the most popular ASMR triggers — a.k.a. techniques — fall into a few categories, like whispering and tapping. But what is it about whispering that makes our brains tingle? I asked experts to help me investigate the science behind why specific ASMR triggers are effective.

First of all, while the trend of making videos to induce ASMR is new, the feeling itself is not. Way back in 1925, Septimus, a character in Virginia Woolf’s famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, had an ASMR experience when a nurse whispered in his ear. And some people are convinced that both Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath were using ASMR triggers in their writing. No one’s totally sure where the name ASMR came from, but it may have been coined on Facebook in 2010. Basically, ASMR seems new but it’s actually just a new term to describe something that was already happening to humans and the video phenom is just a technological upgrade to producing the ASMR experience.

But why is that listening to poetry is a trigger for some people and other folks need tapping? Well, it’s complicated. “There just simply isn't that much known about how different kinds of ASMR experiences or stimuli affect the brain,” explains Robert Froemke, a professor of tolaryngology, neuroscience and physiology at NYU School of Medicine. But Froemke says that it may have something to do with how humans process sound.

“Some sounds are able to access and activate other brain systems beyond the conventional auditory pathway, such as the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, or regions of thalamus and hypothalamus,” Froemke says. “These areas can provide the 'flavor' or more emotional content, soothing, alarming, or otherwise.” In other words, whether or not a certain trigger will produce an ASMR sensation may have to do with how your brain interprets a sound — literally where in the brain gets activated when you hear something. I asked experts why some of the most popular ASMR triggers might work for so many people.

Whispering

Whispering is one of the most popular ASMR categories. One of the most popular ASMR videos of all time — Sleep-inducing Haircut — has 35 million views and is a personal favorite. Frankly, I wasn’t really into whispering and I thought it was kind of creepy — until this video. It was the haircut component that drew me in because I have a weird kind of emotional orgasm when someone washes my hair. Some experts think that that kind of personal association may make a big difference in whether an ASMR works for you.

“It is theorized that certain triggers work better for some people than others depending on their experiences in life,” says Sean Paul, a psychiatrist in Sarasota. “These things trigger a pleasant memory or something in the subconscious that is soothing to that person.” And while the haircut may be part of what drew me into the world of whispering ASMR, now that I’m in it, I really feel the appeal on some deep level that feels biological. Paul points out that that may be because whispering is something that a lot of humans have a positive association with because caregivers often whisper to babies and children to soothe them.

Tapping

People love tapping ASMR. You can find videos of people tapping on every possible surface, from cork to legos. What all these recordings have in common is that they are hypnotically rhythmic. Paul says that tapping may be effective precisely because of that rhythmic repetition. The brain may interpret the repetition in a similar way as it interprets music, which science has shown has a positive impact on mental and emotional wellbeing.

This theory about tapping goes back to the idea that ASMR may be effective because of how humans process sound. There may not be a lot of research yet about tapping ASMR, but scientists have been exploring the human attraction to rhythm and repetition in sound for decades. Recent research suggests that listening to repetitive sounds can change brainwave activity — it can literally put you in a different state of consciousness.

Ambient Noise and White Noise

I could listen to ambient noise ASMR all the time. It doesn’t always give me brain tingles, but I love working to, say, the sound of airports. Some people consider this kind of background ASMR less exciting because it's less orgasm-inducing, but I think it makes it easier to focus. Froemke says there may be a good neurological explanation behind the appeal of ambient noise. “A constant low-level stimulus like a rainstorm or hum of background noise, that might help reduce or rundown 'background' brain activity, essentially silencing or suppressing activity in some brain regions, helping you to focus more on the specific salient task at hand,” he explains. In other words, ambient ASMR triggers may actually help your brain stay where you want it to.

“Of course, it's possible that different people- different brains- have more or less noisy background chatter of their own like this, and perhaps some people need complete silence lest the main activity they want to focus on also gets run down and becomes ineffective,” says Froemke. So ambient ASMR may not work for everyone as “background noise.” Ambient ASMR may be effective all on its own, and Paul thinks it might help folks who are just trying to get their brains into a more serene state. “Ambient noise, white noise, and nature sounds. can help to drown out other sounds and also can help calm your thoughts by actually redirecting your brain from those thoughts to the sounds,” Paul explains.