Rustle, tingle, relax: The compelling world of ASMR

Updated: Aug 3 2014, 07:21am hrs
A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.

It wasnt the first time Id felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paperIve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.

Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for Sound of pages. What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.

The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many ASMR triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour.

For those not wired for ASMRand even for those who, like me, apparently arethe videos and the cast of characters who produce themsometimes called ASMRtists or tingle-smithscan seem weird, creepy or just plain boring (try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes).

Two of the most well-known ASMRtists, Maria of GentleWhispering (more than 250,700 subscribers) and Heather Feather (more than 146,500 subscribers), said that although they sometimes received lewd emails and requests, many of their followers reached out to them with notes of gratitude for the relief from anxiety, insomnia and melancholy that their videos provided.

Some say the mundane or monotonous quality of the videos lulls us into a much-needed state of serenity. Others find comfort in being the sole focus of the ASMR actors tender affection and care. Or perhaps the assortment of sounds and scenarios taps into pleasing childhood memories. I grew up falling asleep hearing the sounds from my fathers home office: a computer engineer, he was continually sorting through papers, tapping keys and assembling and disassembling PCs and MACs.

Carl W Bazil, a sleep disorders specialist at Columbia University, says ASMR videos may provide novel ways to switch off our brains.

People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal, he said. Behavioural treatmentsguided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditationare meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. ASMR videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.

So far, it seems to work for me. Like many insomniacs, I have over the years tried natural remedies like valerian root or melatonin, vigorous exercise regimens and strong sleeping pills like Ambien and Lunesta. But sleep rarely came. Nothing has worked as well and consistently as watching a man in an ASMR video sort through papers and his collection of Titanic paraphernalia.

But locating the neurological underpinnings of this trippy sensation wont be easy. Many of the scientists I reached out to shied away from the subject, saying the area is pseudoscience with a lack of published studies.

Bryson Lochte, a post-baccalaureate fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse who looked into ASMR for his senior thesis as a neuroscience major at Dartmouth College last year, has submitted his paper for publication in a scientific journal. Lochte said, We focused on those areas in the brain associated with motivation, emotion and arousal to probe the effect ASMR has on the reward systemthe neural structures that trigger a dopamine surge amid pleasing reinforcements, like food or sex.

He compared ASMR to another idiosyncratic but well-studied sensation called musical frisson, which provokes a thrilling ripple of chills or goose bumps (technically termed piloerection) over ones body in emotional response to music. Mathias Benedek, a research assistant at the University of Graz in Austria who co-authored two studies on emotion-provoked piloerection, says ASMR may be a softer, quieter version of the same phenomenon. Frisson may simply be a stronger, full-blown response, he said. And like ASMR, the melodies that ignite frisson in one person may not in another.

Robert J Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University who has also studied musical frisson, said that the upshot of my paper is that pleasurable music elicits dopamine activity in the striatum, which is a key component of the reward system in the brain. Writing in The New York Times last year, in an article titled Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing, he notes, What may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

Perhaps the everyday experiences that ASMR videos capturewhispering, crinkling, opening and closing of boxesevoke similar anticipatory mechanisms, sparking memories of past pleasures that we anticipate and relive each time we watch and listen.

The whole topic is still very much unknown, Lochte said. I would be very interested to see what other traits correlate with ASMR sensitivity, whether it is an inherited attribute and what sort of physiological effects the sensation has on the body. All of these questions will be easy to answer with quick follow-up studies. Our study, we hope, will help lay the groundwork.

Stephanie Fairyington