It’s no surprise that certain sounds are exceptionally soothing to some people. Waves crashing on a beach or birds chirping in a forest are often played in wellness spas because they have a calming effect. But for some people, it’s more unconventional soundtracks that allow them to reach a state of serenity, like whispering or crunching shards of soap.
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This is called ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, a phenomenon that causes people to experience a tingling sensation in their scalp, back of their neck and even down their limbs when they hear certain sounds or watch certain activities. People who respond to ASMR say that it instills a feeling of relaxation and calm, and some have described it as a “brain orgasm.”
There hasn’t been much research done in the field of ASMR, but one small study out of Swansea University in the UK found that there were four prominent triggers — whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds, slow movements — and the majority of participants (80 per cent) said it had a positive effect on their mood, while 69 per cent said it eased their moderate to severe depression symptoms.
However, experts are reluctant to say that it’s an effective treatment for anxiety or depression.
“ASMR is definitely not the secret to treating depression and anxiety,” says Stephen Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, who has studied the neural connections in ASMR people. “It could help some people as a ‘supplement’ of sorts to real treatment, but it should not be used instead of consulting a trained professional.”
He says the reason some perceive it as a form of treatment is because there are elements that are similar to mindfulness meditation, which we know has the ability to lead to a sense of calm.
“In meditation, people focus on an external image or an internal sensation and it’s focused attention that allows them to block out the outside world,” Smith said. “It’s been shown to help with things like anxiety or depression. ASMR is the same in that people are focusing on videos or repetitive noises and are experiencing these tingling sensations that allow them to block out the outside world.”
However, he says, meditation is used in conjunction with other things, like an instructor who can walk you through the emotions you feel through meditation, or a therapist who can help you talk through your feelings.
“There’s a tendency in society to find the quickest or easiest or coolest treatment, and being able to sit at home and watch YouTube videos to treat your anxiety or depression is a tempting belief. But it’s more of a supplement that can be used in addition to other treatments, and later on it can be used to maintain a newfound healthy state.”
ASMR people and those who create ASMR videos — they call themselves ASMRtists — are also keen to scrub the practice of its sexual connotations. Part of that perception comes from the “brain orgasm” description, while another stems from the fact that many of the ASMR YouTube videos are made by young women.
“A lot of the popular ASMRtists are women in their 20s who are relatively attractive, so there’s that element where you’re staring at someone in her 20s while she’s doing something intimate and it comes off as somewhat naughty,” Smith says.
“There’s an intimate and voyeuristic quality to it.”
However, he says, ASMR is not primarily sexual. In fact, in the Swansea University study, only five per cent of participants reported using ASMR material for sexual stimulation, and 84 per cent disagreed with the notion that the two are connected.