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An interesting article on Mind Hacks on an odd phenomenon I’d never heard of.

ASMR or “autonomous sensory meridian response” (“the name that stuck” rather than “made up pseudoscientific name”, I think) refers to the ability of certain triggers to induce a state of intense relaxation combined with “chills”, “goosebumps” and pleasant tingling sensations often felt in the scalp and limbs.

I happen to have grapheme-colour synaesthesia, I have meditated and I have been hypnotised before, and unsurprisingly, I suppose, it turns out that I am sensitive to ASMR.

It’s not really a phenomenon that has been studied, certainly not in detail, so I’m unable to report on the underlying neuropsychological mechanisms. Instead, I can explain the sensations and the elements that I think make it work.

Common contents of the most popular ASMR videos on YouTube:

  • Quiet, monotone, melodious talking
  • Sounds such as pencil on paper, hairdryers, occasional traffic
  • The use of a scenario with a professional, non-sexual but personal and intimate theme such as a dental receptionist, a travel agent (although reassuring and more emotionally intimate scenarios also work)
  • Eye contact, close-ups of facial expressions
  • Tasks requiring close attention

In addition, now that I recognise the phenomenon, I’d add these following triggers, at least for me:

  • Good cat photography
  • Shironeko’s DVD
  • Massage
  • Long, non-sexual cuddles
  • Being in the right semi-sleepy mood, lying in bed and having music playing on random
  • Ironing bedsheets
  • Having a cat lick my hand
  • Having someone lick my ear (OMG)

So, what sorts of experiences would I say this feeling is similar to, that I have experienced before? Meditation, hypnotic trance, “flow”, physical intimacy and… synaesthesia. Thus this is what I speculate is happening:

  • The use of personalisation in the form of a human or animal, especially using close-ups of faces and eye contact, engages feelings of empathy and intimacy as well as establishing a “relationship” (remembering that our brains do simulate behaviour that we watch others do)
  • The “boring”/repetitive/innocuous vocal stimuli and noises are of the sort of quality that is used in hypnotism or in calming a child. It isn’t so repetitive that it is predictable, but it is also not striking enough to need or draw attention
  • The noises and “eye testing” or “hair cutting” scenarios have something in common- they invite synaesthetic sensations. Sounds such as fingernails tapping on a hard surface or a hairbrush scratching something like skin or pencil scraping against paper are related to and reminiscent of physical sensations– thus the “chills” and “goosebumps”
  • Finally, harmonious, complex tasks requiring concentration engage the feeling of flow and the somewhat repetitive but not-quite-boring feeling of “flow”.

Thus, the ingredients that are effective in these videos would be things such as a relaxed, calm, quiet, gentle protagonist, cross-sensory stimuli that are neither too boring/repetitive nor so interesting that they are frustrating or dramatic, and personalisation/intimacy without distracting features such as sexualisation.

I don’t think this is actually something that everyone can experience. The great popularity of seemingly mind-numbingly boring YouTube videos about not-very-much-at-all does suggest that it’s probably a somewhat common phenomenon, even if it’s something that seems bizarre when first described. Then again, so are meditation and hypnosis, which are well recognised phenomena with well recognised patterns of brain function and activation.

An interesting footnote is that the ASMR videos/sounds sent both of my cats into gentle purrs and then they fell into a relaxed sleep.