What ASMR means: How it works and why it's popular

Woman drinking coffee wearing headphones

If you follow social media, you may have noticed a few of the more than 13 million ASMR videos online. Many of the videos create ASMR-inducing sounds to play out social situations with actions that may trigger a response. The videos have rapidly gained popularity, but they may still leave you wondering: What is ASMR exactly? How does it work? And, does it help as some people suggest?

What is ASMR?

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response; a term used to describe a tingling, static-like, or goosebumps sensation in response to specific triggering audio or visual stimuli. These sensations are said to spread across the skull or down the back of the neck and, for some, down the spine or limbs. When experiencing ASMR sensations, some people report pleasant feelings of relaxation, calm, sleepiness or well-being.

What can trigger ASMR?

Not everyone experiences ASMR. For those who do, the experience seems to be in response to various triggers or situations involving sight, touch or sound. The intensity of specific stimuli may vary, and while one person may respond to the sound of whispering, another person may experience ASMR while:

  • Talking softly or moving slowly
  • Tapping or typing
  • Close personal attention or eye contact
  • Massage, hair brushing or hair cuts
  • Humming or chewing
  • Light patterns
  • Slowly turning a page or folding paper
  • Scratching, crisp or squishing sounds
  • Squishing or crunching sounds
  • Applying makeup to the face

It's interesting to note that the videos may prompt an ASMR response, in part because ASMR can occur without the sensation of physical touch and instead through visual and auditory triggers that stimulate tactile sensations. 

Does ASMR work or help as people online suggest?

The question "does ASMR work" or "does ASMR help" is not so simple. Some people claim that the practice of watching ASMR videos helps to calm or relax them, while others don't get what the excitement is all about. What helps one person may or may not help another, and it's too early to explain precisely why or how that is.

The first peer-reviewed study published in 2015, and another in 2018, showed that people who experienced ASMR had reduced heart rate while watching ASMR videos, and the reduction was comparable to other relaxation methods. ASMR community public forum discussions have suggested that inducing ASMR could potentially help to relieve symptoms like stress or chronic pain. Others are hopeful ASMR may offer therapeutic potential in the future, possibly as a tool to ease insomnia, depression or anxiety symptoms. 
"If the question is, does ASMR stimuli provoke a physiological response in brain activity and in the body, then yes, there is some empirical evidence that it does," says David E. Warren, PhD, University of Nebraska Medical Center neuroscience researcher, based on his reading of publications on ASMR. "Is there empirical evidence that ASMR reliably changes mood or has lasting effects on mental health? No, there is not. There have not yet been large-scale clinical trials demonstrating the efficacy of ASMR stimuli for those important mental health attributes."  

While there is growing interest in ASMR these days, the fact remains that there are still relatively few scientific studies conducted to date, including studies on the conditions which may trigger an ASMR state. While the experience may include a genuine physiological response, much more scientific research is needed to begin to understand the nature of the ASMR phenomenon.