What is ASMR and why is everyone obsessed with it?

Listening to soothing ASMR sounds
Listening to soothing ASMR sounds

A new relaxation phenomenon is sweeping the internet. Here, we unpick the science behind these viral sounds and visuals.

Suppose that you're having an 'off day' and are desperate to find a way to unwind? Well, thankfully the internet is a wonderful place, filled with content which can satisfy your needs through watching a single video.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is fast becoming the most trendy way to reach a state of Zen, and it's quickly become a YouTube phenomenon, with over six million videos available online. But how can a video alone send your body into a numb, tingly state?

ASMR is a physical reaction that provides you with a deeply relaxing sensation, triggered by certain audio and visuals. It is often described as a 'static-like' or 'tingling' feeling, which begins on the scalp and flows down the back of the neck to the spine.

Common triggers which are known to give an ASMR experience include; whispering, soft voices, scratching, make-up application, visuals of slime, crinkly noises, folding napkins and the widespread favourite of tapping long nails onto a hard surface. The sounds work best when you're listening through headphones or earphones, as it makes the noise feel closer and more personal to you.

People often experience pleasurable sensations from ASMR when getting their hair cut, receiving massages or having their arm tickled softly. The phenomenon has become a popular choice for those with insomnia and anxiety, as the sounds and images stimulate your body to a calmer, stress-free state.

A man having his hair trimmed by a hairdresser

A man having his hair trimmed by a hairdresser

Alicia Boukersi, who's a student that's been using ASMR techniques for the last year, says: "I started listening to ASMR a year or two ago, because I was intrigued. I didn't get why it was such a popular thing, in fact, I just found it odd. But then when I played one of the videos, it suddenly made sense.

"Videos of soft talking and tapping sounds make me feel really relaxed and calm. They send tingles, verging on goosebumps. I suffer with insomnia, but ASMR helps me feel tired and sleepy."

But not everyone experiences the same effect from these videos - and some people don't experience ASMR at all.

Psychologists Nick Davis and Emma Barratt published the first scientific description of ASMR in 2015.

A hairbrush is just one of the items used to create soothing sounds

A hairbrush is just one of the items used to create soothing sounds

Nick explains: "ASMR is a pleasurable, tingly feeling that is associated with a sense of relaxation and calm. The stimuli that trigger ASMR are highly individual, but most people seem to be triggered by whispering voices, which suggests that ASMR is related to feelings of being looked after and protected.

"We don't know exactly what happens when people experience ASMR. Most people report a tingling sensation on the scalp and down the spine, but we're unsure if the sensation is 'real' (in that the skin is reacting to stimulation), or if it's a phenomenon of the brain (so the parts of the brain that sense the skin on the scalp are spontaneously active). A lot more research is needed to pick these things apart."

Emma adds: "There are also a large number of triggers that don't seem to relate to people, or feelings of protection directly. While it's likely that there is an interpersonal aspect to it, there seems so be some other sensory aspects involved too. As Nick says, more research is definitely needed to understand this better."

There are many YouTubers who have created accounts specifically dedicated to providing ASMR content for their viewers, with the viewing figures racking up into the millions. 'The ASMR Angel' and 'Gentle Whispering ASMR' are popular YouTubers, who provide hundreds of relaxing videos for legions of ASMR lovers worldwide.

With the popularity continuing to grow, there are endless videos dedicated to all kinds of weird and wonderful sounds and visuals. So if you aren't sure what makes you tick, have a flick through YouTube when you need to take some time out to relax.