We need to talk about ASMR

(read in portuguese)

For this is the first article I’m writing here, I feel the need to give you some idea of who I am.

First of all, you need to know I’m a designer. Currently, I’m a graphic and interactive designer, but I really don’t like to set a limit to where my design skills may end, so I’ll just stick to “designer”. The other thing you should know about me is that since my college days I’ve been studying the brain, especially cognitive science, in order to understand what happens to us when we are affected by any sensorial experience and how to apply it to a design project (I will definitely write more about it here).

With that said, I guess you might have an idea of why studying and talking about ASMR became almost an obsession in the last few weeks. I’m going to be honest, it hasn’t been too long since i’ve discovered this internet sensation, but it affected me so much I just couldn’t help but relate it to everything I’ve ever studied about the human brain process.

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. A big term to describe a peculiar group of sensations and feelings such as tingles, chills, shivers, waves that run through the head, spine, arms or legs and happen as a response to some kind of trigger. Along with this you can have feelings of comfort, relaxation, calmness and even sleepiness.

Maybe you experienced, when you were a child, maybe you’ve never experienced that at all. I remember that getting my hair cut used to give so many chills and shivers when I was a kid, that the hairdresser couldn’t help laughing .. In fact, I still get the same reaction, but now I can control my body better. Also, I bet you had a teacher at some point of you life who used to talk so calmly and slowly that you’d feel sleepy even if you didn’t want to, am I right? Well, that’s what I’m talking about!

The thing is that the ASMR we feel is now being stimulated by many videos on the internet where young people use techniques as tapping, scratching, mouth sounds and hand movements to create intentional triggers to their viewers. And that’s when this story became interesting to me. How was a video on youtube able to make me feel all those sensations?

If you watched Bob Ross painting on tv and got sleepy, relaxed or just felt good listening to the sounds his gentle voice, brushes and knives against the screen and palette, you probably had a ASMR episode stimulated by an audiovisual already (and I’m guessing you didn’t even know it had a name). If you haven’t yet, I suggest you look for some ASMR videos on youtube, check how your body reacts to different triggers, and then come back to this article. There’s a small chance you won’t feel nothing at all, because not everyone can experience ASRM, but I think it’s worth a try. I’m going to leave my favorite one here, maybe it will work fine for you as well! (the video is in Portuguese).

SweetCarol — one of the biggest ASMR youtube’s channel in Brazil.

How does it happen?

The stimuli is happening: my eyes and ears are experiencing something. Soft spoken words, hands movements on the screen, the sounds of everything being played inside my head if I’m using headphones. My brain is dealing with many cognitive processes right now: the perception is capturing and identifying information, my attention is focused on the images and sounds, my memory works fast trying to establish connections. My senses are being played with.

The first thing I realized was that my mirror neurons should be very active while I was watching the video. They are a specific type of neuron that allows the brain to recreate a body state that isn’t in fact happening. For example, if you are watching a video of someone doing a leg exercise, these mirror neurons activate the same part of your brain related to a real leg exercise. Our brain is constantly reading our body and recreating everything that happens in some kind of virtual body created by the brain itself, what the neuroscientist António Damásio calls a “brain’s body map”. Simulating an event, evolution assured that we saved energy and more:

“ I suspect that the system developed from an earlier as-if body loop system, which complex brains had long used to simulate their own body states. This would have had a clear and immediate advantage: rapid, energy-saving activation of the maps of certain body states, which were, in turn, associated with relevant past knowledge and cognitive strategies.” — António Damásio

In practice, talking about ASMR, what mirror neurons do is to recreate inside the brain everything it possibly can related to what our senses are capturing, even if it’s only the auditive and visual stimulation. I had the pleasure to test this on my mother (thanks, mom!), who had never watched an ASMR video before. I just asked her to watch it and try to find her favorite trigger and I noticed when the youtuber’s finger moved, my mother’s same finger moved as well! I asked her about it and she told me she didn’t notice she was moving her finger at all! I also caught myself doing the exactly same thing with my hand a few times.

The Odyssey Online

This system of the brain is the basis of empathy, what makes you cry or laugh or even “almost feel the pain” of a character when watching a movie. That’s also what makes you almost feel the super soft bristles when the youtuber is brushing the camera. We are talking not only about imagination here, but super developed cells, how about that?!

But, of course, that isn’t all.

Is this real life?

Before we understand the chemicals involved in this phenomenon, I’d like to bring your attention to something new technologies designers already know: your brain can embody things very easily. Take a moment and think a little about how our relationship with our cell phones has become much closer to us than 20 years ago. Many people carry it on their pockets all the time, sleep right next to it, can’t leave the house without it. Even if it’s caused by a need, like waking up on the right time the next morning, we have to admit: cell phones are so much closer to us these days it has almost become part of ourselves.

I like to call these embodied artifacts ‘extensions’. The cellphone could be an extension of my voice, if I’m calling someone. My glasses or lens are the extension of my vision. My clothes are the extension of my skin. It’s as if the brain was already accustomed to add gadgets to my body.

Here’s a video from National Geographic that explains a little better what I’m talking about:

More than just extensions, technologies can also become a potentializer for the body: when Tinker Hatfield designed shoes for Nike, he consciously knew that what he was doing was improving performance of the foot by studying both its anatomy and physics to superpower it with rubber and fabric devices. Same happens to technologies that speak to our senses and perception, the difference in this case is that not only the body is being considered, but also the cognitive process. When talking about these ASMR videos, it’s crystal clear the high quality of the microphones (that many times counts with the binaural capture) and the headphones are not only an extension, but an enhancer of the ability to listen.

It makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE. It’s quite impossible to have such a loud perception of hands rubbing or scratching some surface in real life, meaning that all sounds we listen from ASMR videos are artificial. Not only that, they are also unnatural, they are something new to the brain.

And here’s another fun fact: every time the brain learns something new, it gets very very happy. So happy, it discharges an amount of dopamine: I’m talking about the brain reward system. Every time a new stimulus is being captured by your senses it has to be considered and cataloged by the brain. The first thing it’s going to do is try to make a relation between this image or sound to any other similar one it has already learned in the past. For example, if the youtuber is tapping a glass, even if that’s a virtual augmented sound, your brain can easily recognize that it is the specific material. Same works for plastic sounds. But once those “hipersounds” are being related to a new kind of environment (on the screen: the suggestions of where you’re being touched, the sensation of right, left, up and down), the brain is not quite sure about what’s going on; it becomes something new to be mapped. No one have ever listened to the sound of a camera being tapped (thick glass and plastic) when something touches the skin!

Yes, our brains are being played with!

How does it affect my body?

There are so few studies about ASMR it makes me sad. One of the most significant studies, though, comes from Dr. Craig Richard, founder of the ASMR University. I suggest you read their webpage, if you wanna know more about it, and help with the surveys (I’m pretty sure it will help them!).

There you can find more informations about the neurotransmitters, hormones and how they act and interact with each other, and more informations about ASMR itself. I’ll give you only a short description:

· Endorphin neurotransmitters: inhibit pain while also stimulate pleasure, relaxation, and sedation. These, for me, are very easy to be noticed — I constantly have this extreme relaxation in which I can’t barely feel my legs and arms.

· Dopamine: also a neurotransmitter, was the first one I thought should be involved, when I realized about the brain’s reward system. They are related to desire and motivation, helping you to recall, recognize good experiences (that food you like, the caress of a loved one, etc). Also acts in the movement control, memory and the feeling of pleasure.

· Oxytocin: a neurotransmitter and a hormone that is stimulated by endorphins. Known as the “love hormone”, it’s related to the feelings of contentment, trust and others:

“Oxytocin is likely to be the primary cause of the comfort, relaxation, and decreased stress of ASMR. Oxytocin also contributes to the tingles because oxytocin increases the sensitivity of endorphin receptors. Oxytocin and endorphins together are also very good at decreasing cortisol, a hormone released during chronic stress.” — ASMR University

· Serotonin: it’s a neurotransmitter related to the mood, social behavior, sleep, memory and learning. It probably helps you to feel better and sleep well when watching the videos.

So maybe (just maybe, remembering there is no scientific evidence of that), that’s why many people report their anxiety and depression episodes tend to get better with the help of ASMR.

But be aware: a same trigger may not work for too long. Desensitization is one very common process where the receptors become less sensitive to a stimulus after being repeatedly exposed to it. It means your favorite trigger, the one that relax you the most right now, may stop working eventually. Luckily it works for negative responses too. Let’s say the neighbor’s dog is barking for an hour. It can provoke a negative emotional reaction, but at some point your brain will “chose not to care” about it anymore, that is, your receptors will become less sensitive to this same stimulus and stop generating a bad reaction. It can be very useful to our day-to-day life.

There are some people who seem to be unable just to shut it down, though…

The dark side of the sound

Well, I’ve been talking about all the benefits of the ASMR and this type of audiovisual stimulus. But there’s always the other side. The same way you can react very well to a trigger, causing you good feelings, you can find triggers that actually makes you very angry and unhappy. The misphonia is the negative emotional response to a trigger. I have a LOT of problems with chewing sounds. Other people hate plastic sounds, or mouth sounds or scratching. It’s very interesting to see how the same trigger works differently for each individual. What works for me may not work for you, what drives me crazy could be your most amazing relaxation trigger!

Why does it all happen? Maybe it’s related to experiences in our childhood (many videos will make you feel like a baby or a little kid, I’ve seen many people saying it reminds them of their mother’s affection). Or maybe you lived a bad or good event related to one of these sounds and now your brain just make an association. But again, this is just speculation, it’s still a grey area.

While we don’t have many scientific studies about ASMR, I hope my article can give you a hint of how complex and beautiful the cognition process is and how many studies we have left to do! Please, comment and share with your friends, loved ones and ASMR artists! If you can, support researches about ASMR! It’s important we all discuss about it, once it’s a phenomenon on the internet that have been helping people with stress, anxiety and even depression.

I’ll see you in my next article!

Owner of an inquisitive mind & passionate about design, minds, cognitive sciences, the brain and, most of all, humans.