Technicalities of the Tingles: The science of sounds that feel good. #ASMR
“I wanted someone speaking in lightly accented English. And I wanted them talking to me about jewelry, slowly and deliberately.”
— Andrea Seigel, This American Life #491: Tribes (aired March 29, 2013)
Now that NeuWriteSD’s gender month is over, I thought I’d ease our readers back into the usual routine with a scientifically-stimulating but slightly less sexual discussion about pleasure (for its sexual counterpart, see “Your Brain on Sex”). I’m going to talk about a particular pleasure produced by a fascinating “new” phenomenon: the autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, that is sometimes called a “brain orgasm.” Don’t let the name, the porn-like nature of the videos, and the priming effect of gender month fool you: ASMR is not sexual! It’s just an overwhelming tingling sensation that feels really, really good.
ASMR is often described as a tingling that starts at the back of the head and spreads down the spine and limbs—but not below the belt. ASMR can be triggered by a number of sounds, including whispering, finger-tapping, the crinkling of marijuana baggies (see the episode “Geiger” from my favorite web series, High Maintenance), and marbles rolling around in a bottle.
Video of YouTuber GentleWhispering describing ASMR in a gentle whisper.
Although sounds have probably been providing people with pleasure for thousands of years, the taboo nature of pleasure and the seemingly random set of ASMR triggers have prevented widespread knowledge of the phenomenon. It’s unlikely that ASMR would’ve been discovered and named if it weren’t for the help of the Internet, and YouTube in particular. After discovering their triggers IRL, pleasure-seekers have secretly searched YouTube for videos of “tarot card readings,” “folding paper,” “jewelry hauls,” and other seemingly mundane activities that can scratch their itch, so to speak. Eventually, through comments and YouTube playlists, users with similar triggers began to find each other and congregated at sites like The Unnamed Feeling blog. At some point in 2010, according to The Washington Post, a woman named Jennifer Allen coined the pseudo-scientific term “ASMR.” Now, there are thousands of self-identified ASMRers and several “ASMRtists” on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of subscribers and several millions of views. The ASMR subreddit has over 100,000 subscribers as well!
While there is still some skepticism about the existence of ASMR, the phenomenon has been covered by several media outlets, including The Independent, Cosmopolitan, and The Guardian, and just this March, the first scientific paper was published on ASMR! The study, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state,” published in the open-access journal PeerJ, was based on online survey results from volunteers found via ASMR Facebook and Reddit groups. The authors reported that, of the 475 participants surveyed, 98% use ASMR for relaxation and only 5% use ASMR for sexual stimulation. Interestingly, there was a significant correlation between the ability of participants to achieve a state of flow (i.e., being “in the zone” while doing something) and their total number of ASMR triggers. There was also a slight increase in the prevalence of synesthesia in the study sample—5.9% as compared to 4.4% in the general population—but this increase wasn’t significant. Of clinical importance, the authors found that ASMR seems to temporarily relieve depression and chronic pain (in line with common anecdotal appeals to use ASMR to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic migraines, and similar conditions). Although these data are not experimental, they do provide some quantifiable insight into the potential mechanisms behind ASMR.
Intimations of intimacy
Although no controlled studies have been conducted on the phenomenon, there is no shortage of hypotheses on its origin or neural correlates. For example, Andersen (2014) argues that ASMR occurs via “intentionality, memory, and nostalgia,” rather than “by the pure interaction between sound waves and brain,” as many ASMRers believe. She writes that “ASMR is clearly induced through cognitive associations,” and that the ASMR community should embrace the experience as “nonnormative sexual public intimacy” (meaning: stop being so modest and admit that it’s weirdly sexual!). However, I’m not sure I believe these claims. If we have to make this sexual (and obviously we do), ASMR is probably frequently induced during sex–with whispering, mouth sounds, heavy breathing, and the crinkling snack wrappers. Therefore, ASMR probably enhances the experience, and the association of certain triggers with sex might also enhance ASMR. I highly doubt, however, that ASMR is inherently sexual and ASMRers are in denial (this is the Internet, we are not shy about sex here!).
Andersen (2014) did, however, have a plausible theory that the pleasurable, relaxing effect of role-playing ASMR videos—in which the ASMRtists pretend to give medical exams, paint nails, or brush hair, for example—is the result of the feeling of intimacy between viewer and performer. Similarly, Ahuja (2013) discusses the relationship between ASMR and the “the diagnostic act as a form of therapy unto itself.” That is, careful examination by a clinician has inherent healing qualities that can be co-opted by role-playing ASMRtists.
A cranial nerve exam in German by FastASMR. This was #4 on This Week in ASMR’s list of “5 Great ASMR Cranial Nerve Exams That Will Put You In A Tingle-Coma.”
Biologically, this theory makes sense. The close physical contact—through social grooming and maternal care, for example—can increase bonding between mates, mother and child, or just friends via the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin (Donaldson & Young, 2008). The sights and sounds that trigger ASMR may act through the same pathway.
Interestingly, oxytocin has recently been found to promote excitatory neurotransmission between sensory cortices (Zheng et al., 2014). I wonder if extra oxytocin release during development might increase the connections between the auditory and visual cortices of the brain that process the ASMR videos and the reward and pleasure networks in the brain (discussed below). Many ASMRers describe themselves as being “miswired,” and some theorists think the phenomenon is similar to synesthesia. Maybe we’re onto something.
The intimacy theories don’t touch on the tingles, though. They avoid the concept of ASMR as an autonomic, or unconscious, response. Are relaxation and the tingles separate phenomena? Is relaxation being achieved simultaneously through both conscious and unconscious processes? Do the whispering, role-playing videos affect multiple types of responders: those who go for the intimacy and those who go for sound-induced relaxation, which may or may not be accompanied by the tingles? Do some responders require role-playing while others need only the aural characteristics of whispering? (These are questions to which there are currently no answers.)
Interviews in the preview for “Braingasm: The ASMR Documentary” suggest that ASMR probably isn’t completely conscious process (if at all).
Just a freaky form of frisson? (Or: It’s music to my ears—literally!)
While I can get on board with the use of sounds for relaxation, the whole idea of role-playing makes me uncomfortable. Even the idea of someone tickling a Snickers bar makes me cringe. I do not find either situation pleasurable or relaxing. So, I am reporting from second-hand experience, and I do not have ASMR—right? I don’t know anymore…
Last week, I went to a Sufjan Stevens concert, and the combination of his gentle voice and amazing lighting effects gave me the chills. I didn’t realize it at first, but upon reflection, the chills I felt might’ve been the tingles.
Sufjan Stevens’ performance at Copley Symphony Hall last Tuesday gave me the chills. Was it ASMR? Does the beginning of this video give you the chills, too?
The tingles were induced by music, though, so does my reaction count as ASMR? It’s debatable.
Music-induced chills, also known as “frissons” or “skin orgasms,” have been studied across multiple fields, including philosophy, ethnomusicology, psychology, and neuroscience. Triggers for frissons in Western cultures include “chord progressions descending the circle of fifths to the tonic, melodic appogiaturas, the onset of unexpected harmonies, and melodic or harmonic sequences” (Harrison & Loui, 2014). In other words, there are specific, definable characteristics that can trigger musical frisson.
When we listen to music, we develop explicit and implicit expectations for when these triggers—changes in pitch, tempo, and volume—will occur. These expectations are likely stored in the superior temporal gyrus (STG), which houses the primary and secondary auditory cortices. (In 1963, the amazing Wilder Penfield reported that stimulation of the STG can result in musical hallucinations!) The STG is connected to the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and medial orbitofrontal cortex, which are important for emotional processing and decision-making. These regions provide the major cortical inputs to the striatum, which includes the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens.
When we anticipate a musical trigger, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the caudate. This type of dopamine release is related to “cravings” and occurs, for example, when cocaine addicts observe others smoking cocaine (Volkow et al., 2006). Immediately after the peak, when our expectations are met or exceeded, dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens (see Zatorre & Salimpoor, 2013, and other work by Drs. Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor for more fascinating details about the biology of our musical expectations). This release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens also occurs when we enjoy food, sex, and drugs. Therefore, the mechanisms that cause enjoyment of and potentially addiction to music are the same as those implicated in food, sex, and drug addictions, and are most likely also involved in the desire for and fulfillment of ASMR.
It is important to recognize that reward is not the same as pleasure, but dopamine is involved in both. Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens causes the release of opioids (the body’s natural morphine) in “hedonic hotspots,” which lead to those happy feelings. The nucleus accumbens is also connected to the hypothalamus and insula, which are implicated in the control of autonomic responses, including markers of emotional arousal like increased heart rate, respiration rate, skin conductance, and of course, the chills. Surely, these mechanisms are involved in ASMR, as well.
Based on what I’ve read and experienced, frisson seems to be briefer than the ASMR tingles, but maybe the tingles are repeated instances of frisson?
Dr. Richard’s “Origin Theory of ASMR 2.0”
I can’t talk about the science of ASMR without acknowledging Dr. Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, who founded ASMR University online. A major goal of ASMR University is to promote the scientific study of ASMR. And to facilitate ASMR research projects, Dr. Richard has outlined his “Origin Theory of ASMR 2.0,” which argues that ASMR triggers work by “activating the biological pathways of inter-personal bonding… which stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.”
He outlines several parallels between parental behaviors and ASMR: whispering, light touch and soft caresses, slow and methodical hand movements, focused care and attention, trust, and eye-contact, as well as the fact that many primary caregivers and ASMRtists are young females of reproductive age. Given these parallels, he believes ASMR acts through similar neural mechanisms, some of which I have mentioned above.
When an infant is close to its parent, endorphins (opioids that produce the “runner’s high”) are released, stimulating mu opioid receptors. These are the receptors activated by pain killers, which inhibit pain and stimulate pleasure, relaxation, and sedation. Dr. Richard suggests that endorphins are the primary cause of the tingles and euphoria of ASMR.
Endorphins stimulate the release of dopamine and oxytocin, both mentioned above. Dopamine, he says, “helps you recall, recognize, and focus on those things in life that trigger endorphins… Dopamine is probably the primary molecule that reminds an individual which ASMR videos are best at triggering endorphins.” Oxytocin is responsible for the comforting, relaxing effects of ASMR. In a positive-feedback loop, oxytocin also increases sensitivity to endorphins! Finally, oxytocin stimulates serotonin release. Many antidepressants aim to increase serotonin, which promotes feelings of happiness and well-being.
All of these mechanisms have been drug targets for pain, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, so Dr. Richard hopes that ASMR will be considered as a medical treatment for these disorders. Beyond the neuroscientific theories, Dr. Richard goes on to discuss the relationship between ASMR and orgasm, provides a potential explanation for tapping and crinkle triggers, and addresses other questions about who experiences ASMR and why. If you are interested in ASMR research beyond what I’ve covered here, check out ASMR University and subscribe to the blog!
The thought or experience of some of these ASMR videos might make you uncomfortable, for psychosocial reasons, but do any of them make you anxious or angry? Recently, Edelstein et al. (2013) from UCSD have received a lot of attention for their work on misophonia, or “hatred of sound.” They define misophonia as “a chronic condition in which specific sounds provoke intense emotional experiences and autonomic arousal within an individual.” Sounds a lot like ASMR, right? The difference is that the emotional experiences that occur are not pleasurable, they instead include panic, anxiety, and rage.
While I have difficulty personally relating to ASMR, I was immediately struck when I learned about misophonia. Ever since I can remember, the sounds of loud chewing and repeated throat clearing have made my chest tighten and my teeth clench. Fun, casual dinners with family and friends can sometimes become extremely stressful if I am seated next to a loud eater. Similarly, the subtle sounds of a singer’s lisp can turn my jam into poison. And now I know, it’s not only because I am a hater but also because I am misophonic!
I imagine my discovery of misophonia was much like that of ASMRers when they discover that they are not alone in their unusual desires. There are many other parallels between misophonia and ASMR. Misophonia has not been linked with any psychological or neurobiological conditions, but it may be due to excessive connectivity between the auditory and limbic systems (in line with some of my speculations above, Edelstein et al. suggest that misophonia may be a form of sound-emotion synesthesia. Similarly, Salimpoor et al. (2013) found that increased connectivity between these brain regions predict greater desire for and experience of frissons!). Misophonics, too, have congregated on the Internet, where they can share triggers that vary widely. Interestingly, some misophonia triggers—pen clicking, finger tapping, plastic bags, and typing, for example—are also ASMR triggers. Finally, the fact that “responses evoked by trigger sounds appear to be modulated by prior knowledge, context, and sound source,” suggests that misophonia, like ASMR, probably acts through multiple “top down” and “bottom up” processes in the brain.
To support their anecdotal reports of misophonia, Edelstein et al. (2013) also measured skin conductance of misophonics and gender- and age-matched non-misophonic controls while they were presented with potentially-aversive stimuli. Importantly, skin conductance was positively correlated with aversiveness ratings across participants, which means the subjective reports matched autonomic responses. Using this method, they found that control aversiveness ratings were positively correlated with misophonic ratings, but the aversiveness ratings by misophonics were greater than ratings by controls. In other words, although the controls might find some of the stimuli mildly aversive, they did not find them nearly as aversive as the misophonics did. What differences in the brains of the misophonics and controls underlie these differences in responding? Good question.
The scientific study of misophonia, like that of ASMR, is in its infancy. I imagine that the framework developed by Edelstein et al. (2013) will benefit the study of ASMR, and future ASMR research may inform misophonia studies, as well.
Clearly, scientific research on ASMR is lacking, but my hunch is that peer-reviewed publications on the phenomenon are on their way. A couple of years ago, Bryson Lochte, then an undergraduate student at Dartmouth, turned to Reddit for help with his senior thesis project, “Touched through a screen: putative neural correlates of autonomous sensory meridian response.” He graduated in 2013 and published his senior honors thesis, but the report can only be accessed in print. Given that his graduation from college was probably not contingent on the status of his senior thesis work, there is no indication that the study has been completed, but at least an attempt has been made. I’ve set up a PubMed alert for new ASMR publications, and I’m sure Dr. Richard will let us know about new publications in the works. In the meantime, I’m going to focus my efforts on finding some new triggers.
Also, there will be an ASMR Convention in Anaheim this Fall!!! If you are interested in going, tickets will go on sale June 13, 2015… that’s this Saturday! Let me know if you are going to go, maybe I’ll see you there!
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Andersen, J. (2014). Now You’ve Got the Shiveries: Affect, Intimacy, and the ASMR Whisper Community. Telev. New Media 1–18.
Barratt, E.L., and Davis, N.J. (2015). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state. PeerJ 3, e851.
Donaldson, Z.R., and Young, L.J. (2008). Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and the Neurogenetics of Sociality. Science 322, 900–905.
Edelstein, M., Brang, D., Rouw, R., and Ramachandran, V.S. (2013). Misophonia: physiological investigations and case descriptions. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 7, 296.
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Volkow, N.D., Wang, G.-J., Telang, F., Fowler, J.S., Logan, J., Childress, A.-R., Jayne, M., Ma, Y., and Wong, C. (2006). Cocaine cues and dopamine in dorsal striatum: mechanism of craving in cocaine addiction. J. Neurosci. 26, 6583–6588.
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