ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it might be our best bet for mitigating the loneliness that record numbers of us are feeling during lock-down.

After more than four months of lock-down due to covid-19, people are feeling the mental health effects of little to no social contact. They’re lonely, anxious and depressed, having lost one of the biggest contributing factors to good mental health — human connection.

Yes, we might organise Zoom drinks with friends, but, as much as we wish it could be, it isn’t enough for many of us. It’s hard to translate the dynamic of a loud, rowdy group of friends into a 6-way video call.

Audio or video will inevitably lag and you just can’t speak over each other or pair off into whispery one-to-one gossip without disrupting the already-delicate balance of the operation. And, even if you all manage to hear each other, what about the hello and goodbye hugs, the sympathetic pat on the arm or the subtle, secret eye-roll?

If you’re one of the 30% of UK adults who live alone, you might not remember the last time you hugged another human being. 

Researchers are calling this lock-down the largest-scale psychological experiment to date and it might have left you with some real questions, like: What is this doing to my mental health? Have I become a bit feral? and Have my social skills atrophied for good?

Content creator Angelica ASMR

The origins of ASMR

The term ASMR appeared in 2010 to describe the relaxed, tingly sensation some people get when a friend plays with their hair or whispers in their ear. Jennifer Allen, who coined the term, was searching the web for an explanation to the fuzzy, sleepy feeling she would get from watching make-up videos on YouTube. In the absence of any real online resources, she created a Facebook group to connect with others like her. The rest is Internet history.

Over the past 10 years, a huge ASMR community has mushroomed on YouTube and expanded into other media, including podcasts, audiobooks and even experimental live-spaces. The phenomenon has gone from an underground guilty pleasure to one of the biggest content categories on YouTube.

More and more channels start out with high production values and professional sound and video equipment because, these days, ASMR is lucrative business. Content creators can amass millions of subscribers and the most popular ones do this as their full-time job. In a way, they provide viewers with what they most need right now: something resembling human connection.

Ok, so what is it?

Content creator Gibi ASMR explains the phenomenon to curious first-time viewers

Those who experience ASMR describe it as a pleasant tingling feeling that usually starts at the top of the head and travels down the back of the neck, arms and legs. These tingles are accompanied by an overall feeling of relaxation, euphoria and increased focus. Some people get so mellowed out that they fall asleep, while for others, ASMR helps them study or get over a migraine. There’s near-universal consensus that, though the sensation is physically pleasant, it’s a fundamentally soothing experience and doesn’t skew sexual in nature.

Triggers range from soft speaking, whispering, slow, dreamy hand movements and mundane tasks done with utmost precision (like a 35-minute towel folding tutorial) to eating sounds, personal attention role-plays and explainer videos. The medium can also be a great creative outlet, giving rise to some extremely inventive scenarios that are somehow still soothing for viewers, such as this Grease-inspired role-play or an entire playlist of historical ASMR, from the 11th century onward. 

What does science say?

Graphic: Jackie Hur
Sources: SmithsonianMag.com, ASMR University – Origin Theory of ASMR

Though the term has a scientific ring to it, research on this phenomenon is still thin on the ground. The few studies done to date have estimated the number of people who “get” ASMR to be anywhere between 20 – 70% of the population

Other studies have drawn a correlation between certain personality traits — such as high neuroticism and openness to new experiences, with lower conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion — and the likelihood that you’ll get the “tingles”, as they’re commonly called in the ASMR community. 

Potential explanations for just how ASMR works on the brain have included the hypothesis that it is somehow related to mindfulness, in that it elicits a calm and positive emotional state. Some people rely on ASMR to get through an anxiety attack or to ride out other kinds of intense emotions — all situations where the grounding effects of mindfulness are just as helpful.

The antidote to loneliness

Another hypothesis is that the soothing effects of ASMR are down to the social nature of the triggers. The experience could mimic bonding behaviours that most of us find automatically comforting, resulting in a surge of feel-good hormones in the brain, like endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin. 

Graphic: Bottle PR Agency
Source: ASMR University – Origin Theory of ASMR

The bonding rituals between parents and infants include many of the behaviours that trigger ASMR, like close personal attention, slow hand movements, speaking in hushed tones and physical grooming. Later in life, people usually encounter these same triggers in close friendships, romantic relationships, when going to see an aesthetician, hairdresser, masseuse, or in other environments where personal attention is the name of the game. 

Just like chimpanzees groom each other to reduce intense emotion and promote bonding between individuals who’ve been apart for a while, we use ASMR-triggering behaviours to soothe each other and ourselves. Or so the theory goes.

Indeed, since this March, when most of Europe and the US went into lock-down, ASMR viewership has gone up 10%. Many video creators say they’re getting more traffic, comments and subscribers during this time, along with requests to make more covid-related content.

But not all ASMRtists are on board with that. “Most of my audience doesn’t want to be constantly reminded of all the anxiety and stress this virus has caused,” said TingTing, a popular ASMRtist with 1.3 million YouTube subscribers. “I want my audience to have an escape when they watch my videos.”

For viewers, ASMR is a safe place, where they can forget about their day-to-day anxieties, relax and indulge their need for comforting. According to one longtime viewer, the videos are “almost like the equivalent of a thunder buddy or comfort blanket. Their calm, reassuring voices help me focus and have moments of peace, or block out other distractions while I need to get things done. It helps me be more in the present moment, rather than letting my thoughts spiral out of control.”

TingTing ASMR

Research has yet to find evidence that ASMR can be harmful in any way. For now, it seems like a valuable coping strategy for millions of people struggling with lock-down loneliness and a supplement to more traditional mental health resources, such as therapy, medication and mindfulness. 

So, if you’re one of those reaping the benefits of ASMR during lock-down, keep doing what makes you happy. Maybe even email it to a friend.

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