Reference: Smith, S. D., Fredborg, B. K., & Kornelsen, J. (2019). A functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of the autonomous sensory meridian response. PeerJ, 7, e7122.
Do you love getting pampered but don’t want to pay for regular massages? Good news for you! There is a free online solution that promotes relaxation, known as ASMR. Recently, researchers discovered that ASMR activates brain regions related to emotion, movement, hearing, and attention.
Most ASMR videos simulate calming social interactions and create soothing sounds. They are designed to evoke “tingles” – a pleasurable sensation that starts in the scalp and may descend to the neck and upper back. Viewers can get these tingles from watching somebody receive a shoulder rub, or from listening to close-up whispers. These videos are a rapidly-growing tactic for relaxation online. However, as many as half of all people are completely insensitive to ASMR (1).
The term ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is not a scientific one. It was coined by the Internet community when these videos first started appearing in the late 2000s. Since then, this YouTube-based phenomenon has exploded in popularity, giving rise to hundreds of channels and thousands of videos.
But even among ASMR-sensitive individuals, some sounds or scenarios, known as “triggers”, can leave one person tingly, but another completely unfazed. Some ASMR videos are dedicated to helping viewers discover what gives them the “tingles.” For some, it’s hair brushing simulations. For others, it’s tapping or eating sounds.
Tingles in the brain
A team of psychologists, led by Stephen Smith from the University of Winnipeg in Canada, investigated what brain regions are engaged when people experience ASMR. They recruited 17 self-reported ASMR-sensitive people and 17 people of similar age and gender, but who did not get any tingles from ASMR videos (ASMR-insensitive people). The researchers scanned their brains, while showing them a variety of videos. Half the videos were meant to evoke ASMR, and the other half were simply recordings of people talking in a normal voice.
The psychologists in the study took care to include a variety of ASMR triggers. The videos contained a person doing things like whispering close to the camera, brushing someone else’s hair, or checking the viewer’s hair for lice. According to a prior study, these triggers range from medium to strong in their ability to produce tingles in ASMR-sensitive people (2).
Neuroanatomy of ASMR
The researchers found that when ASMR-sensitive people were shown ASMR videos, some of their brain regions became more active than when they were shown non-ASMR videos. In particular, the more active brain regions tended to be the areas responsible for sensing information about the world with the body, such as the left superior temporal gyrus and the left cuneus. These brain regions may be involved in processing speech and the pitch of sounds (3, 4). Activation of these brain regions may mean that the tingly ASMR effects depend heavily on sound.
The researchers also compared the activity of the brains of ASMR-sensitive and ASMR-insensitive people in response to the ASMR-inducing videos. They discovered that people with ASMR sensitivity had more activity in their anterior cingulate gyrus. This brain region plays a role in emotional activity, possibly reflecting the pleasurable nature of ASMR tingles. The anterior cingulate gyrus is also part of the salience network – a system that regulates switching attention to internal mental activity (such as remembering a recent event) to paying attention to outside stimuli (such as an ASMR video). The activation of the anterior cingulate gyrus may mean that getting ASMR tingles requires paying close attention to the video.
When watching ASMR-inducing videos, people with ASMR also had more activity in their thalamus – a brain structure that helps integrate multiple senses. It is possible that experiencing ASMR requires combining the senses of hearing and touch, so that the sounds of the video result in the pleasant tingling sensation.
More than tingles?
In ASMR, a video simulation of a real-world scenario can elicit a very real sensory response. Feeling touched and attended to is only a YouTube click away, and now we know what brain regions may be responsible for creating this pleasant experience.
Learning about ASMR-related brain activation patterns may help get us closer to simulating much more complex experiences. Scuba diving? Doing stand-up comedy and not getting any stage fright? Perhaps one day we could experience these sensations from the comfort of our own homes!
- Smith, S. D., Katherine Fredborg, B., & Kornelsen, J. (2017). An examination of the default mode network in individuals with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Social Neuroscience, 12(4), 361-365.
- Fredborg, B., Clark, J., & Smith, S. D. (2017). An examination of personality traits associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 247.
- Buchsbaum, B. R., Hickok, G., & Humphries, C. (2001). Role of left posterior superior temporal gyrus in phonological processing for speech perception and production. Cognitive Science, 25(5), 663-678
- Platel, H., Price, C., Baron, J. C., Wise, R., Lambert, J., Frackowiak, R. S., … & Eustache, F. (1997). The structural components of music perception. A functional anatomical study. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 120(2), 229-243.