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What Is ASMR All About?

ASMR is real—and might even work on you.

Key points

  • ASMR is a form of stimulating relaxation that is associated with measurable physiological differences in those who experience it.
  • ASMR is said to have a calming effect and its best-known application is for treating insomnia.
  • The prevalence of ASMR is unknown, but it's believed to be uncommon.

If you’ve spent any time watching YouTube, listening to comedy podcasts, or reading internet comment threads, you’ve probably come across the phenomenon known as ASMR — or, “autonomous sensory meridian response.” Perhaps you’ve been mystified by videos of people whispering to the camera, scratching their microphones to produce soft, staticky noises, or just brushing their hair. Even ordinary tasks like folding towels, tapping fingertips, or crinkling plastic can be seen in these strangely ordinary videos, which are also frighteningly popular: The New York Times reported in 2019 that collectively, two hundred or more such videos were being posted each day. Some of the YouTube personalities generating these sounds have become miniature celebrities with millions of followers; working in ASMR is often not only popular but also extremely lucrative.

Lex McKee / Flickr
Source: Lex McKee / Flickr

What these “ASMRists,” as they’re often known, are trying to do is to create what psychologist Jade Wu calls “a happily warm and tingling sensation that starts on the scalp and moves down the neck and spine.” This experience was first identified in the mid-2000s by Jennifer Allen, who may have wanted to describe it clinically despite its being, at least at the time, an unfamiliar concept to most people. Psychology Today, in a summary article, indicates that the ASMR sensory experience is often associated with strong feelings of relaxation or calm, which people in the ASMR community deeply enjoy or even crave. The phenomenon isn’t exclusively generated by sounds, either; some types of light or gentle physical contact, like getting a haircut or a massage, can create ASMR sensations as well.

Physiological differences in those who experience ASMR

If you don’t feel the strange, prickling skin sensations reported by those who enjoy ASMR, you may be wondering if it’s actually real. It is: In 2018, a research group headed by Giulia Lara Poerio, Emma Blakey, Thomas J. Hostler, and Theresa Veltri found genuine, identifiable differences in physiology between people who said they could experience ASMR relaxation and those who did not.

The research also showed that ASMR could produce an unusual combination of symptoms, including those associated with physiological arousal (such as sweating) and others common to relaxation (such as a reduction in heart rate). As Dr. Wu pointed out, these apparently contradictory effects make the ASMR experience very different from simple relaxation.

Another study based at Dartmouth College put people undergoing ASMR sensations in an MRI machine to detect changes in the brain during the experience. “They found that the medial prefrontal cortex, an evolutionarily advanced part of the brain associated with self-awareness, social information processing, and social behaviors, was activated,” Dr. Wu said. Other areas of the brain’s reward system and emotional arousal systems were also implicated (although it’s difficult to generalize from this study because it did not use a control group of people who don’t experience ASMR.)

Personality traits and ASMR

Other research has shown that the ability to respond to ASMR correlates with certain personality traits. Beverley Fredborg, Jim Clark, and Stephen D. Smith at the University of Winnipeg published a paper on the topic in 2017, concluding that “individuals with ASMR demonstrated significantly higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism, and significantly lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness.” In their study, experimental subjects who were higher in Openness to Experience and Neuroticism were also found to have higher-intensity ASMR sensations.

Calming effects of ASMR

Typically, people who experience the ASMR sensation often find it very pleasurable, as though someone was whispering kind words in their ears and making them feel special. But the best-known application of ASMR is insomnia treatment, as you’ll see if you call up a quick list of the many ASMR videos on YouTube. Psychology Today reports that a large majority of ASMR enthusiasts use the phenomenon to help them get to sleep. It may have this effect by reducing stress levels, taking their mind off of intrusive thoughts, or even by simply improving their moods in general. Dr. Poerio, who conducted the 2018 study mentioned above, says that judging by the heart-rate reductions of study participants, ASMR can have calming effects similar to those of music or mindfulness meditation.

Experiencing ASMR for yourself

Now that you know about the unique benefits of what might be termed stimulating relaxation, ASMR could seem like something you’d want to experience for yourself. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of thing you can teach, practice, or learn. It’s an involuntary physical reaction, and what’s more, it’s not as common as you might expect, judging from the popularity of those ASMR videos.

It’s difficult to say just how many people have the ASMR response, but an article in The Guardian from 2018 indicated that anywhere between 20% and 70% of adults might experience it. Wu believes that “most people aren’t affected by these triggers,” though, and she also reported that some people find ASMR triggers aversive or annoying. In the end, if you experience ASMR, it might be good for you, in that you can probably use it to help you relax at bedtime… but if you don’t, it’s probably nothing to lose sleep over.


Ferguson, D. (2018, October 6). Whisper it... ASMR videos are the quiet revolution going global. Retrieved from…

Fredborg B, Clark J and Smith SD (2017) An Examination of Personality Traits Associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Front. Psychol. 8:247.

Keiles, J. L. (2019, April 4). How A.S.M.R. Became a Sensation. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from…

Poerio GL, Blakey E, Hostler TJ, Veltri T (2018) More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. PLoS ONE 13(6)

Psychology Today. (n.d.). ASMR: Autonomous sensory meridian response. (N.D.). Retrieved from:

University of Sheffield. (2018, June 21). Brain tingles: First study of its kind reveals physiological benefits of ASMR. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 21, 2022 from

Wu, J. (2019). What is ASMR? Retrieved from…

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