For nearly a decade now, an increasing number of people have clicked in to watch people on YouTube touch fluffy things, get their hair cut, or fold towels – just to experience the pleasant sensation of ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.
And there’s reason to think watching these videos might actually be a healthy pastime for some people. Not only does it make them feel nice, it’s now been shown to have a calming, therapeutic effect.
The results of this University of Sheffield study probably come as little surprise to the 1.3 million subscribers of YouTube’s Gently Whispering channel.
Literally hundreds of thousands of ASMR videos exist, presenting various sensory triggers to people who get that particular tingling sensation down the back of the neck and spine.
And people also watch these videos to destress or to lull themselves to sleep. Gently Whispering presenter Emma Smith tells the BBC she stumbled across the phenomenon herself while looking for something to calm her after a car accident.
“It was then I realised there was a name for this feeling I’ve always experienced,” says Smith.
While it seems harmless, surprisingly few people have so far examined the physiological effects in detail under laboratory settings.
“ASMR has gone virtually unnoticed in scientific research,” says Giulia Poerio from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology.
Studies that have investigated the effects of other goosebump-inducing stimuli, such as music, haven’t always shown such calming results. So it makes sense to ask whether these ‘brain orgasms’ make people’s pulse race, or are actually soothing to the nervous system.
The researchers conducted two studies, one using an online survey to gauge the general experience of ASMR and people’s emotional responses to the sensations, and another to collect data on physiological reactions.
With a sample of more than 800 volunteers, 81 percent of whom claimed to experience ASMR, the team characterised people’s emotional responses to ASMR content.
Compared to non-ASMR participants, the people with ASMR more often reported that video clips with ASMR content produced tingling, more excitement and calmness, and decreased their stress or sadness.
The most common triggers appeared to be hearing soft voices, watching people tap hard surfaces, or seeing others have their hair brushed.
For the second experiment, 110 people had their vital signs and skin conductivity measured while they watched a variety of video clips. Half of the sample was selected for having reported ASMR experiences; the other 55 volunteers hadn’t, so they served as controls.
Comparing the two groups, those goosebump-inducing, tingly sensations seem to be accompanied by an average drop in heart rate of 3.41 beats per minute.
Strangely, they also showed an increase in skin conductance: an arousal response that suggests ASMR is more complex than simple relaxation. The same individuals also tended to report more positive emotions and a sense of social connection.
“Our studies show that ASMR videos do indeed have the relaxing effect anecdotally reported by experiencers – but only in people who experience the feeling,” says Poerio.
“What’s interesting is that the average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness.”
Previous studies have suggested ASMR could be beneficial for reducing depression and even helping people cope with chronic pain.
Putting numbers to anecdotes could go some way to help legitimise ASMR as a simple, effective therapy for many people to take advantage of in a busy, stressful routine.
If you feel tingly watching somebody rub a paintbrush on their face, science now says there’s no harm in taking an ASMR break.
And if you’re not one of those who feel the ASMR buzz, maybe give Bob Ross a try? Those happy little trees will almost certain have you drifting off with a smile.
This research was published in PLOS One.