Are you familiar with ASMR? You might have heard of this sensory phenomenon, which has become wildly popular in the past several years. I have a number of patients who are using ASMR videos and audio to help them sleep better—and more patients who are interested in this cultural phenomenon.
Given the growing interest in ASMR, I thought I’d bring that discussion here, for a first look at ASMR: what it is, and whether it may have benefits for sleep.
What is ASMR?
ASMR—which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response—is sometimes referred to as a condition, and other times as a phenomenon or an experience. ASMR is a relatively newly identified phenomenon, that has been given its name (a non-clinical term) within just the past decade. People with ASMR experience feelings of intensely pleasurable and relaxing tingling, concentrated in the head and neck, in response to specific sounds or images. Audio and visual stimuli are the most common triggers of an ASMR response, but some people experience this relaxing tingling in response to touch or to smell, as well.
These powerfully calming sensations appear to be triggered by a broad range of sights and sounds. Some of the most common ASMR stimuli involve watching and listening to people performing very simple, ordinary tasks and routines. Folding laundry, turning pages of a book or magazine, brushing hair, and eating are some of the most popular ASMR triggers. Sounds involving water running also can be powerful ASMR triggers. So-called “crisp” sounds, such as the scratching of nails along a hard surface, and the crinkling of plastic are also popular ASMR stimuli. But it’s whispering that is the single most common and popular ASMR stimulus. (The soft-spoken television painter Bob Ross has a devoted ASMR following.) Routines that involve personal care and attention, such as having hair shampooed and trimmed, or getting a manicure, are also regarded as common ASMR stimuli.
To generate an ASMR experience, people usually watch videos (there are countless ASMR videos on YouTube) or listen to audio recordings made specifically to elicit an ASMR reaction.
What does this ASMR experience feel like? It’s both a physical and an emotional experience. The physical sensations usually start with a tingling in the scalp that spreads across the head and neck, and often traveling to the arms and legs. Accompanying these physical sensations are powerful feelings of pleasure (non-sexual pleasure), a rush of relaxation and calm, and a deep sense of comfort and well being.
Some people are prone to experiencing to this sensory phenomenon, while others are not. Scientists don’t yet know why that’s the case–though indications are that differences in brain activity may play a role. And we don’t yet know how many people in the general population can experience ASMR. Some scientists who study the condition have found anecdotal evidence that experiencing ASMR may not be particularly rare. And the surge in popularity in recent years of ASMR videos online suggests a great many of us may be capable of having this sensory experience. Since it was first identified roughly a decade ago, ASMR has gained a large and growing following of practitioners, who use these calming, euphoric sensory experiences to relax, lift their mood, and help their sleep.
Why does ASMR happen?
ASMR has probably existed for a very long time. It’s only recently been identified—and scientists are just beginning to study this sensory experience. The first peer-reviewed scientific study of ASMR was conducted in 2015 by researchers at U.K.’s Swansea University. Scientific interest is picking up quickly, in response to the growing interest from the public and the incredible popularity of ASMR content online.
While there’s a lot we don’t know about ASMR, we are starting to learn some fascinating things that illuminate the phenomenon and suggest how, and why, it may be helpful for sleep.
Not everyone experiences ASMR, and we don’t yet have scientific evidence of its prevalence in society. The pioneering ASMR study conducted in 2015 found that most people who experience ASMR report having their first experience of it during childhood. Through this and other studies, we’re beginning to identify some of the condition’s characteristics, and some shared attributes among people who experience it.
ASMR may be similar to ‘flow’
Flow is a well established, well researched state of consciousness that combines deep relaxation with highly focused engagement. In a state of flow, we feel profoundly at ease, and able to concentrate and perform at our best mentally and physically. Fully immersed without stress or reluctance in what we’re doing, our sense of time slips away. Some recent research has pinpointed similarities between ASMR and flow, particularly the deep relaxation and sense of well being. One significant difference between flow and ASMR? In a state of flow, we’re applying ourselves to a task—we’re engaged in some type of pursuit, whether that’s playing music or solving a math problem or swinging a golf club. ASMR, on the other hand, involves no such task engagement. Instead, passive relaxation appears to be the full experience.
ASMR is connected to misophonia?
Think of misophonia as a kind of inverse experience to the blissful, relaxation sensations of ASMR. People who experience misophonia are extremely sensitive to certain sounds. In cases of misophonia, exposure to these sounds triggers intense feelings of anger, discomfort, agitation, and disgust. Chewing and breathing sounds are some of the most common sources of misophonia. A recent large-scale study of misophonia found that about half of the participants with misophonia also had ASMR. This suggests that these two conditions, which both combine sensory sensitivity with emotion, may exist on a spectrum. People with misophonia may have particular trouble sleeping—especially if they are sensitive to sounds such as yawning, heavy breathing, and snoring.
ASMR also shares some attributes with another sensory condition: synesthesia. In people with synesthesia, stimulation of one sense triggers automatic stimulation of another sense. For example, some people will see colors when they hear music, or hear sounds in response to certain smells. Recent research found that almost 6 percent of people with ASMR also experienced synesthesia.
ASMR related to mindfulness?
Like ASMR, mindfulness can combine both attunement to senses and emotion. In a mindful state, we can be highly aware of our senses and possess heightened self-awareness of our thoughts and feelings. When we’re mindful, we experience this sensory and emotional awareness with acceptance, and without judgment. Mindfulness can lead to deep relaxation, and feelings of peace, comfort, and well being—much of what people with ASMR report.
A recent study explored the possible connection between mindfulness and ASMR. Researchers found people who experience ASMR had more characteristics of mindfulness than people who do not experience ASMR.
Mindfulness is a powerful sleep enhancer, reducing stress, improving sleep quality and sleep quantity, shortening the time it takes to fall asleep. I’ve written about the ways mindful practices can help improve sleep naturally.
Are some personalities more prone to ASMR?
A 2017 study suggests so. Researchers looked at personality traits of nearly 300 adults with ASMR, and compared them to the same number of adults without ASMR. They found people with ASMR were more likely to be curious and to have daydreams and fantasies, to be artistic and less conventional in their lives and outlook. People with ASMR were also more likely to be self-conscious, have anxiety, and be prone to depression.
Personality affects sleep in many ways. Think about all that we know about our different chronotypes. Organized Lions (morning types), who plan their bedtimes and waketimes and stick to them, are less likely overall to experience insomnia than restless Wolves (evening types), who are apt to be most restless and wired at night.
Brain differences related to ASMR
Scientists are just beginning to understand how ASMR works in the brain. Initial research indicates there may be intrinsic differences in both the structure and function among people with ASMR. A 2017 study found people who reported experiencing ASMR had areas of the brain that demonstrated higher levels of connectivity—essentially, these brain areas worked more actively in a “networked” fashion. At the same time, some typically connected areas of the brain were less “networked” in people with ASMR. These discoveries have scientists theorizing that ASMR may be at least in part a result of “blending” of brain networks, which give rise to the dual sensory and emotional experiences of the condition.
Potential benefits of ASMR for sleep
Research to measure and assess the effects of ASMR in addressing sleep problems is just getting underway. We don’t yet have scientific data that shows how, and how well, ASMR may improve insomnia or other sleep issues.
What we do know is that many people who use ASMR are using it to help their sleep. Research from 2015 has found that most ASMR users employ this experience to help themselves fall asleep. This research found that bedtime was the single most common time for people to use ASMR, with 81 percent reporting they used ASMR before going to bed.
How might ASMR work to enhance sleep? While we don’t know for sure, recent studies and user-reported experience suggest several possibilities.
People who use ASMR report feeling significantly more calm and significantly less stressed because of their ASMR experiences. A 2018 study showed that among people with ASMR, watching ASMR videos led to measurable reductions in both psychological and physiological signs of stress. ASMR users felt their emotional stress go down and feelings of calmness increase, and experienced a reduction in heart rate. In this study, people without ASMR also watched these videos, and didn’t receive the stress-reducing benefits that people with ASMR did. This study was among the first to measure the physiological effects of ASMR.
Interestingly, the results showed that feelings of calmness often occurred alongside feelings of excitement, and lowered heart rate often occurred alongside other signs of physiological, non-sexual arousal. These findings illustrate how complex the physical and emotional response to ASMR can be. Stress is one of the most common obstacles to sleeping well, and the stress-relieving sensations of ASMR may be one of the reasons so many ASMR users are finding it helpful for sleep.
Many people with ASMR say that the experience has a deeply positive effect on their mood. Studies are starting to back that up, showing at least a temporary lift in mood and improvements to symptoms of depression, including relief from sadness. The 2015 study found that 80 percent participants with ASMR reported a positive effect on mood, and other research from 2018 found decreased levels of sadness in people with ASMR after watching ASMR videos.
Depression and anxiety are mood-based conditions that exert a powerfully disruptive effect on sleep. (That relationship is a two-way street, as sleep also affects the severity of both anxiety and depression.) The combination of creating calm and alleviating sadness or other depressive or anxious symptoms may be another way ASMR can contribute to better sleep.
Relief from pain
There’s some very preliminary scientific data that suggests some people with ASMR may find relief for their chronic pain through experiencing ASMR. Roughly half of a group of people with ASMR who also had chronic pain reported positive, temporary changes to their pain symptoms after using ASMR, in a research study. If you’re interested in knowing more about the relationship between pain and sleep, I’ve written about the impediment that physical pain poses for sleep, particularly as we age.
How to use ASMR
There are several different ways to try ASMR. The online world is full of ASMR videos and audio, and the National Sleep Foundation suggests ASMRUniversity and ASMRLab as resources for finding videos and learning more about how ASMR works.
Because of its connection to mindfulness, you can also work on your own to cultivate this kind of relaxing, sleep-friendly sensory and emotional experience. Meditation may bring you to a similar state of relaxation and sensory awareness, with a sense of emotional well being. Visualization exercises, too, may achieve these effects: imagine yourself in a grassy field on a warm day, with the grass rustling around you and a steady breeze hitting your skin and rolling past your ears, creating soothing sounds.
Recorded sounds of nature, such as rain and wind, may also do the trick to relax and soothe you, and bring you to a peaceful physical and emotional state that’s ideal for falling into a sound sleep.
Remember, not all of us are likely capable of having an ASMR experience. For people who don’t experience ASMR, meditation, visualization, and sound therapy may deliver something equally soothing and sleep-promoting, with lasting benefits for your sleep, as well as your mental and physical well being.
Have you had an ASMR experience in your life? Do you use these sensory experiences to help you relax, and to better your sleep? I hope we’ll soon know a lot more about why ASMR has become such popular tool for sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor