If you get a strange but soothing feeling of enjoyment watching QVC, or listening to people whisper, you’re not as alone as you may have worried. It’s so widespread that there’s even a term for it now – Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. For some it’s felt as a tingle on their scalp, for others a frisson across their neck and shoulders.
Whilst ASMR may sound vaguely scientific, and certainly more so than early alternatives such as “head-tingle” or “braingasm”, there’s no consensus as to how it works, or even if it really exists. The existence isn’t in doubt to those who have experienced it, and the triggers they give for the sensation are many and varied.
The best place to see the range of these triggers is on the internet, where hundreds of home-made ASMR videos have been uploaded. Some feature ambient noise, such as the tapping of fingernails, scratching, or rustling paper. Others focus on an activity, such as wrapping a gift, carefully unboxing a new purchase, or teaching a skill such as painting or origami. Yet others recreate through role-play a familiar experience such as an eye test, a haircut, or even a dental check-up. A common feature of many is whispering, linking back to both the softness of the ambient noise and the instructive element of the role-play.
For many this reaches its apotheosis in an ASMR video that opens with the words “My name is Maria, and I was asked to be your home décor consultant today.”, before she demonstrates the best way to fold towels for fifteen minutes.
If you’ve watched the video you’ll know whether you experience ASMR, or whether for you it’s about as compelling as watching the proverbial paint dry. The problem for researchers is the range of triggers and the variety of ways in which it is experienced. Both believers in the reality of ASMR and sceptics agree that functional MRI and other brain mapping technologies offer a way of measuring what may or may not be happening.
Tom Stafford, Lecturer on Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield, describes the current position of AMSR as being “a blind spot. It’s like synaesthesia” he adds, “for years it was a myth, and then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it”.
The reason for the research into the mechanisms behind ASMR is the powerful effect it can have not just on peoples’ moods, but on insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Some believe that it is based around a brain seizure related to those which can cause epilepsy or feelings of euphoria. Others believe that the mechanism may have more in common with the effect of white noise, especially in cases of insomnia. A third explanation is based around the same brain function used in meditation, and the closing down of areas of the brain involved in anxiety and stress.
What is plain however is the reality of ASMR for many people, and the potential implications for managing stress, anxiety, and insomnia that understanding could bring.
If you found Maria’s video to be just “boring” why not read my blog post on boredom? You might be surprised at how interesting a subject boredom can be.
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