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Why Do Only Some People Get the ASMR Tingles?

Man sleeping listening to peaceful sounds.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that people who got the good “tingly” response from ASMR videos were also more likely to have anxious traits and feel some anxiety relief after watching.
  • ASMR may soothe anxiety in the same way that feelings of social connectedness do.
  • Experts say ASMR is an accessible way to relax, reduce anxiety, and even induce sleep.

ASMR has become an internet phenomenon over the last few years, lulling people worldwide to peaceful sleep and relaxation. But why do only some people experience the “brain tingles” after listening to these videos and podcasts?

Researchers from Northumbria University in England found that having “high trait neuroticism,” or a tendency to frequently experience negative emotional states such as anxiety, may predict one’s ability to experience the positive, “tingly” feelings associated with ASMR.

What Is ASMR?

ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response” and is said to have been coined about 12 years ago by Jennifer Allen, who started a Facebook group for it. It’s used to describe a tingling or calming sensation that people feel in response to certain audio or visual stimuli.

Craig Richard, PhD, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University in Virginia, told Verywell that the term describes deep feelings of relaxation accompanied by a tingle on the scalp. Richard has collaborated on studies on the subject, and found that the relaxing tingles tend to come upon hearing and/or watching “gentle sounds, light touch, and personal attention from someone with a caring disposition.”

However, not everyone you talk to about ASMR will say they’ve experienced it. Joanna Greer, PhD, senior lecturer of psychology at Northumbria University and co-author of the study, and colleagues found that having higher levels of anxiety not only makes you more likely to experience the brain tingles—it also predicts ASMR’s ability to help you soothe your anxiety.

But even if you don’t get that “tingly” feeling, you just might have not found it yet.

“Many individuals have discovered that they had to try many different ASMR triggers before they found the one(s) that work for them,” Richard, who also founded the website ASMR University and is the host of an ASMR podcast Sleep Whispers, said.

The study was published in PLOS One in early February.

What This Means For You

If you already enjoy ASMR, or are interested in it, there’s no shortage of free, accessible material online. Try searching online or YouTube for ASMR of all sorts—of people eating food, doing makeup, fake cutting your hair, or just touching and tapping things. There are also ASMR podcasts. Some say that painter Bob Ross made some great ASMR, too.

ASMR May Soothe Anxiety

During the pandemic, researchers asked 64 participants to spend 10 to 15 minutes listening to and watching a chosen ASMR video from home. After all, Greer said, this might make the study results more realistic, since people had control over their space, and felt more relaxed, which is the effect ASMR is said to induce.

Before and after the video, they also sent participants a few surveys. The idea was to investigate associations between state anxiety, trait anxiety, and ASMR. State anxiety refers to “the level of moment-to-moment anxiety an individual experiences,” whereas trait anxiety reflects “a stable and enduring tendency to experience anxiety.”

That is, some are just more prone to anxiety, likely due to both biological and environmental factors.

Greer and colleagues also asked participants about their previous experiences with ASMR and had them complete a survey about their mental health, which included questions used to identify traits linked to anxiety, like neuroticism.

They found that people who got the good “tingly” response from the video were also more likely to have anxious traits. What’s more, these people felt the video relieved their anxiety.

This study, Greer said, can encourage further investigation into how ASMR can be used to soothe anxiety. “It doesn’t matter whether they experience the tingles or not,” Greer added.

Still, their sample size was small, and most participants identified as female. And although having participants listen at home might have added an unexpected benefit, researchers couldn’t see exactly what participants were doing. Future studies will likely require a more controlled setting, such as a lab.

How Does ASMR Work?

Specific areas of the brain become more active when someone experiences ASMR-related tingles.

“Some of these regions highlight the likely involvement of dopamine and oxytocin,” Richard said. Dopamine activity is associated with the anticipation of reward, while oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, may be central to ASMR.

The behaviors that trigger oxytocin release, Richard added, such as tousling someone’s hair, bonding over a conversation, and hugging, are similar to the behaviors that trigger ASMR.

The way this works in the brain may go something like this: ASMR activates oxytocin release in the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain behind the forehead—which is associated with self-awareness and social behaviors. This process could be essential in producing that feeling of reward we get when meaningfully and/or lovingly interacting with someone.

This whole process is known to stimulate feelings of relaxation and comfort, as well as decrease stress. The importance of social support in one’s health, well-being, and recovery from stress is well documented. More recent research echoes the same message during times of adversity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turns out that when you’re not able to interact meaningfully with someone, ASMR can provide a temporary simulation of that interaction.

And in general, Richard added, past research has found that ASMR is helpful for decreasing stress, getting more sleep, and lowering heart rates.

“Many patients seek treatments for reducing their anxiety, overcoming their insomnia, and lowering their heart rate,” he said. “The early research on ASMR supports that it may be helpful for patients with these challenges.”

Why Can’t Some People Feel It?

ASMR may be trending, but not everyone you talk to about it will share that good “tingly” feeling. Why’s that?

"Some people have different gene sequences that make them more sensitive to oxytocin or other brain chemicals that are involved in ASMR,” Richard explained.

At the same time, he added, life experiences, cultural influences, or even mindsets can affect one’s ability to experience ASMR. This hasn’t been studied as much, but Greer’s study may offer some insight.

If you haven’t experienced those tingles yet and want to, don’t lose hope, Richard said. “Some people may actually experience ASMR and not know it because they only tried one or two ASMR videos without an effect,” he said.

A Low-Risk, Accessible Tool

ASMR is everywhere. You can find it in podcasts, videos, on social media, and more.

In addition to being accessible, ASMR is also low-risk: The worst outcome is that it just doesn’t work or is mildly unpleasant. You can always turn the video or podcast off if you don’t like it.

If you want to see if ASMR helps you get to sleep, Richard recommended finding content that nixes the visual aspect. “Podcasts don’t have the bright light and visual distractions that may interfere with falling asleep,” Richard said.

Richard and Greer both hope to see ASMR research grow. It could deepen our understanding of the phenomenon, as well as help to design therapeutic interventions for anxiety and insomnia.

“Health professionals are already using or recommending mindfulness, meditation, and other relaxation techniques to help patients,” Richard said, “So ASMR may be another valuable tool in the healthcare toolbox.”

Greer agreed. “This could be a tool that you could use, whether you get the tingles or not,” she said.

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3 Sources
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