What Is ASMR? | Are ASMR and Music Related?

I am behind the times on pretty much everything, and internet trends are no exception. I only recently discovered the term ASMR, and it suddenly started popping-up everywhere. So rather than keep myself in the dark, I decided to research ASMR.

But ASMR isn’t the easiest thing to research, and that’s because there isn’t a lot of existing research on the topic. It’s also an unusual rabbit hole to go down. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is a possible relationship between ASMR and music.

So today we are discussing ASMR and the possible relationship to music.

Summary: ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is a pleasurable tingling sensation that occurs in the back of the head, scalp, and neck in response to tactile, audible, and visual stimuli. ASMR is not experienced by everyone, nor is it sexual in nature. Those who experience ASMR self-report increased relaxation and improved sleep, along with other medical benefits.

(If you’d like to see this content in a video, watch my YouTube video here.)

What is ASMR?

ASMR is a relatively new phenomenon. ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, and is not a medically created term. The term was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010 after spending years in online chat rooms that discussed, what they called, “brain orgasms.”

As documented in The New York Times Magazine article How A.S.M.R. Became a Sensation:

She started with “autonomous” because it was a feeling from within; “sensory” was self-explanatory. “Meridian” worked triple duty, suggesting peak but also orgasm and the energy pathways of traditional Chinese medicine. “Response” was just to say that it was not a constant state; it happened in reaction to a set of stimuli, like whispering, gum chewing and tapping.

But what are these “brain orgasms” and where do they come from?

The issue with ASMR is that not everyone experiences these sensations, and we only have descriptions from those who self-report. The sensations are most often identified as tingles that begin in the scalp, back of the head, and neck, and sometimes travel down to the arms and legs. Others describe the feelings of goosebumps that come and go in waves of heightened intensity. And some report warm sensations. Most people who experience ASMR describe the feeling as “euphoric.”

But the important thing to remember is that these feelings are in response to certain stimuli.

What Stimulates ASMR?

ASMR can be a response to a positive interaction, and there are two components that create the interaction: context and a trigger.

Context refers to the fact that most people experience ASMR when they are experiencing, real or perceived, personal attention. This attention is usually calm, friendly, helpful, and the person experiencing ASMR feels safe with the person providing context.

Trigger refers to the specific stimuli that occur during the interaction, and are either tactile, auditory, or visual. These triggers are non-threatening and provided by the person giving context in a calm, friendly way.

ASMR experiences have been self-reported during regular daily activities that involve personal interactions, such as getting a haircut, seeing a doctor, assistance from a teacher, or time spent with a friend or romantic partner.

It’s important to note that ASMR experiences and responses are not sexual, something we’ll discuss more in a little bit.

What Triggers ASMR?

This is where the topic of ASMR can start to get a little weird, especially if you’re someone (like me) who doesn’t experience ASMR. This is also why people who do experience ASMR, like Jennifer Allen, considered these feelings taboo before it became mainstream.

As mentioned above, ASMR triggers can be defined by three broad categories: tactile, auditory, and visual. Remember that all of these triggers are positive, friendly interactions.

Tactile triggers include the light touching of your hair, arm, hand, or back. These tactile interactions can be intentional or unintentional, and occur at a smooth, slow pace.

Auditory triggers are quiet sounds created by the human voice, fingers, or other objects. Examples include someone whispering, scratching or tapping objects, crinkling paper, brushing sounds, or other low volume sounds.

Visual triggers are harder to narrow down, as almost anything can be a visual ASMR trigger. Common examples include watching people play with sand or slime, someone giving you a caring facial expression, or watching someone create art. The classic example of a visual trigger (auditory, too) is watching a painting tutorial video of Bob Ross.

These triggers could happen unintentionally during a haircut, for example. The hairdresser constantly touching your hair, talking to you, the consistent sounds of scissors cutting or clippers buzzing…these triggers could stimulate the warm, tingling sensations associated with ASMR.

The experience of ASMR can also be sought out intentionally, most popularly through YouTube videos created by ASMR-centric content creators known as ASMRtists. This is where ASMR can especially be seen as taboo or sexual, since ASMRtists often incorporate some type of non-sexual role play into their content.

Here are examples from two of the largest YouTube ASMRtists, with millions of followers and views:

Gentle Whispering ASMR
Gibi ASMR

What Are the Health Benefits of ASMR?

Identifying the health benefits of ASMR is difficult, and there are a few things we need to consider:

First, there are only eleven (11) peer-reviewed studies on ASMR that have been published to date. Second, most of the data we have about the experiences and responses of ASMR are self-reported, and are difficult to conclusively back-up scientifically. Third, in a few of the published studies that have tried to identify physiological changes in those who experience ASMR, research has found some physiological changes, but these are not always compared to a control group.

With those considerations in mind, research has provided some insight into the potential health benefits of ASMR.

Those who experience ASMR self-report increased calmness and relaxation, with one study showing 86% of ASMR-experiencing participants intentionally watching ASMR videos to relax. That same study showed 11% of participants use ASMR videos to reduce stress and anxiety.

Research has also determined that those who experience ASMR have increased activity in certain areas of the brain, a decreased heart rate, and increased skin conductivity. These biological responses are what have led researches to conclude that ASMR is not a sexual response, since these responses differ from each other. Similarly, ASMR responses are not the biological responses to simple relaxation, so ASMR falls somewhere in between simple relaxation and sexual arousal.

The same study mentioned above indicated that 41% of participants use ASMR videos to help them fall asleep, including those who self-report that ASMR helps lessen their diagnosed insomnia symptoms.

Are Music and ASMR Related?

In the world of ASMR there seems to be a common question regarding a potential relationship between music and ASMR. This question has been posed by those who experience ASMR, as well as through some of the peer-reviewed studies.

Many people ask this question because listening to music has long been known to create “chills” or goosebumps. Since there seems to be a similar response to listening to music and those who experience ASMR, the connection is logical.

This was explored in the most recent peer-reviewed study published, conducted in 2018 by Alexsandra Kovacevich and David Huron through the Ohio State University.

The phenomenon of experiencing “chills” when listening to music is known as music-induced frisson. Frisson is a French word meaning “shiver” or “thrill,” and frisson does not have to be music-induced. However, we are specifically addressing music-induced frisson.

Music-induced frisson and ASMR have similar responses, though ASMR is reported as being more subdued. Furthermore, ASMR experiences are reported to be more long-lasting and sustained than music-induced frisson.

Perhaps most notably identified by the researchers is the difference in nature between the stimuli of music-induced frisson. As mentioned above, ASMR comes from a calm, friendly, nurturing state. Music-induced frisson, however, comes from a state of fear.

This is not saying that we are afraid when we listen to music. But our biological responses are driven by fear, or a sense of alarm, due to some musical characteristics. These musical characteristics include loud sounds (sustained or sudden), gradual increases in volume (approaching sounds), low sustained sounds, or any sound that is “shrill” or “scream-like.”

These musical characteristics are in direct contrast to those of ASMR, which are gentle, quiet, and soothing.

Why people experience a similar response to music-induced frisson and ASMR has some explanations, but is also relatively unknown.

Conclusion

As someone who doesn’t experience ASMR, it’s difficult for me to imagine what ASMR feels like, or even why watching ASMR videos is relaxing. ASMR can be polarizing, with those who experience ASMR finding ASMR videos incredibly calming, while those who don’t experience ASMR can find these videos annoying or agitating.

I have written to one of the authors of the music-induced frisson study mentioned above, and am hopeful that she will provide some insight into questions I had regarding music and this pleasurable, fear-driven response. If I do, I will continue this discussion of the relationship between music and ASMR, which has peaked my interest.

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