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What is ASMR and How Can It Help You Sleep?

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Tom Ryan

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Dr. Heather Wright

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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) describes the deep relaxation and pleasant scalp tingling some people feel in response to quiet sounds such as whispering, or quiet sounds combined with gentle movements and personal attention. This phenomenon was only named in 2010, but it has gained significant traction online among people who claim that activating this response helps them relax and sleep better. And although research is limited, it appears that some of these claims may be correct.

Whether you’ve used ASMR in the past to help you sleep or are curious about its potential benefits, it’s worth exploring the research behind how it works and what might cause ASMR’s positive effects. By understanding ASMR better, it’s easier to decide if it might work for you and determine how to fit it into your existing sleep routine.

What Is ASMR?

People who experience ASMR describe the feeling as very relaxing, with a static sensation across the scalp, back of the neck, shoulders, and sometimes elsewhere in the body. It has been compared to, and may be related to, the frisson, or chills, that sometimes occur when people listen to music. However, instead of music, ASMR is prompted by crisp or quiet sounds, either alone or when combined with careful movement or personal attention. Some videos intended to provoke ASMR also include visual cues, which appear to affect the response in some people.

Not everyone experiences ASMR, but most people appear to be able to. In one study, 81% of participants reported having experienced it in the past. Most people seem to feel ASMR for the first time between the ages of 5 and 10, though some people feel it for the first time in adulthood. Although ASMR is a newly recognized phenomenon, it appears that people have been experiencing it for a long time.

What Triggers ASMR?

Different people experience ASMR in response to different triggers, but researchers in one study identified four primary categories:

Within the study, 75% of people experienced ASMR in response to whispering, while only 53% found that slow movements stimulated the response. Personal attention and crisp sounds fell between the two, earning positive responses from 69% and 64% of people, respectively. Outside of these categories, other reported triggers included repetitive movements, smiling, and airplane or vacuum cleaner noises.

Other researchers have discovered that for many people, ASMR can also be triggered by having their hair played with or watching someone working on a project that requires care and attention.

Videos and audio tracks intended to provoke ASMR share many common themes that may influence the phenomenon, though research is still ongoing. Role-play scenarios that involve personal attention, such as getting a massage or undergoing a medical check-up, are common. Most people appear to enjoy content that includes two triggers, such as a video that includes simulated personal attention and whispering.

How Does ASMR Work?

Since ASMR is a recent discovery, research into how it works is still new. Although we do not yet have a solid explanation of how ASMR works, researchers have hypotheses, and the research that has been done provides some intriguing evidence.

In one study, researchers performed fMRI brain scans of people while they were experiencing ASMR. Participants in the study showed activity throughout their brain, called whole brain activation, during periods of ASMR tingling. There was also significant activity in the area of the brain associated with self-awareness, social understanding, and social behaviors, including grooming behaviors in non-human primates. Because the effects of ASMR are similar to the effects of social grooming in primates, the researchers theorized that it might be a grooming response that remained after evolution.

ASMR being a social response would explain the feelings of comfort, relaxation, and sleepiness it promotes. The areas of the brain ASMR activates are associated with hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, all of which can promote these feelings. It could also help explain why certain personality traits, particularly being open to new experiences, seem to increase the chances of someone experiencing ASMR.

However, ASMR may be more complicated than this hypothesis suggests. While people experiencing ASMR almost always find it relaxing, it appears to also trigger increased excitement and non-sexual physiological arousal. Complex feelings like nostalgia can be both happy and sad, and ASMR may be a complex response that is both calming and stimulating. ASMR may also be related to brain connectivity. One study showed that people who experience it tend to have reduced functional connectivity or unusual connectivity in some areas of the brain.

    Can ASMR Help You Sleep?

    There is little research into the benefits of ASMR for sleep or sleep disorders. However, anecdotal evidence and existing studies do demonstrate that ASMR may help some people sleep better.

    What we know about how ASMR works is consistent with claims that it improves sleep. For example, ASMR appears to activate regions of the brain associated with calming, sleep-inducing hormones like dopamine and oxytocin.

    Among people who use videos or audio clips to induce ASMR, 82% use ASMR to help them fall asleep. It is the second most common reason people use ASMR media, with overall relaxation being the most common reason. Bedtime is also the most popular time to use ASMR media, with 81% of respondents in one study reporting that they preferred to listen or watch just before falling asleep. Only 6% preferred to use ASMR media before noon.

    One group of researchers interested in ASMR’s use as a sleep aid combined ASMR triggers with binaural beats, an auditory stimulus that is hypothesized to change brainwave patterns. While this pairing appeared to be effective, there are no similar studies based on ASMR alone.

    Does ASMR Have Other Benefits?

    As with its potential role as a sleep aid, there has been minimal research into other uses for ASMR. However, researchers are interested in its potential to help people with depression or anxiety. A reported 80% of people who experience ASMR noted that it had a positive effect on their mood, with benefits lasting for several hours after using ASMR media. If these anecdotal findings are correct and ASMR does offer reliable emotional and physiological benefits, ASMR media might be helpful in treating mental health conditions. However, more research is needed to make definitive conclusions.

    As with their sleep and mood, some people who use ASMR media report that ASMR videos and sound clips can help them cope with chronic pain. Although only 41% of ASMR media users with chronic pain reported pain reduction, those that did reported benefits lasting up to three hours after the ASMR experience.

    Researchers are also interested in ASMR’s relationship to mindfulness, which involves paying close attention to the present moment without judgement. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation have grown in popularity thanks to benefits like stress reduction, sleep improvement, and increased ability to cope with chronic pain. People who experience ASMR tend to be more mindful than people who don’t, raising the possibility that ASMR is related to mindfulness.

    How to Use ASMR for Sleep

    ASMR is a very personal experience. A video or sound clip that triggers the response in one person might not do the same for another. Because of this, people can use ASMR for sleep in different ways.

    Since not everyone experiences ASMR, the first step should be determining whether or not you can. ASMR videos are prevalent online, with options including a wide variety of triggers. If ASMR works for you, experimenting with different videos or sound clips can help you decide what triggers do or don’t work for your needs.

    Most people prefer a quiet, relaxed environment when using ASMR. The majority also prefer using stereo headphones, as these provide a greater depth of sound. Standard headphones can be uncomfortable to wear during sleep, so people who use ASMR to fall asleep may want to invest in a pair of sleep headphones that sit flat against the head.

    It’s worth remembering that ASMR used alone is unlikely to be as effective as ASMR combined with good sleep hygiene. For example, many people use their phone to access ASMR media, but the blue light emitted from smartphones can have a negative effect on sleep. ASMR can also be combined with relaxing pre-sleep exercises or other ways of winding down before you sleep.

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