ASMR: What is it and why do some people seek it out?

Needing to unwind during a global pandemic is nothing to be ashamed of. But you may be reticent to let others know how you do it if you’re one of the many people searching for spot popping videos online.

If you watch spot popping videos, you're certainly not alone!

These videos often fall under the umbrella of 'oddly satisfying' videos, along with, for example, people making and playing with slime. A popular Reddit thread on the topic has been trending on and off since the beginning of lockdown and, within that thread and in other places across the internet, spot popping videos are getting a lot of attention.

If you like these kinds of videos, and have absolutely no idea why, we might be able to help explain. These videos, to varying degrees, all have the ability to produce autonomous sensory meridian response, better known as ASMR. In a nutshell, this refers to a bodily response to visual or auditory stimuli (things you can see and hear) that produces a tingling sensation, which often starts from the scalp.

For example, have you ever had someone whisper a secret in your ear, only for that to make the hairs on your arms stand up? Well, that’s ASMR, and lots of people now make videos trying to replicate those scenarios so people can feel it whenever they want to. While it may not be the primary purpose of a video about spot-popping or playing with slime, they can also produce similar effects in people, too. Not everyone feels the tingling sensation ASMR brings however, which makes it an incredibly elusive subject to study.

But there are those that are studying it, such as Dr Giulia Poerio, a psychology lecturer at the University of Essex. She says it’s not just tingling that you can feel though, as ASMR “is also associated with feelings of a kind of calmness and relaxation”, which is why, for example, some people like to watch these videos before bed, to help them get to sleep.

This feeling of calmness has been backed up by studies she conducted while working at the University of Sheffield, where she found people watching ASMR videos had a reduced heart rate, which is a physiological response associated with feeling more calm.

“In most situations where you are anxious your heart rate will increase, and when you're calm, it will reduce. Physiology is the root of emotion, essentially, at least according to a lot of emotion theorists.”

How it works

So what sets ASMR off? Well, there’s a few common things that do it, and they’re known as triggers.

One ASMR trigger is intense ear attention, which is produced by creating sounds by brushing or tapping objects directly onto a microphone

“They can be visual triggers, like slow hand movements, audio triggers like whispering, interpersonal triggers like close personal attention such as pretending to put on or take off your make up, and also one thing that people often forget is a really strong trigger for ASMR is touch.

“People often forget, because they see lots of ASMR content on YouTube that actually most often in daily life, when ASMR is experienced it's experienced through touch. It’s affective touch, which is kind of like a soft stroking touch, like somebody's stroking your back.”

Who gets it and why?

One of the confusing things for people who study ASMR is the fact that not only do some people not feel it at all, but within the group of people who do, the intensity to which it is felt varies dramatically.

This is something that Dr Poerio is actually currently studying, and they’ve had some very interesting early results.

In short: “People who are more highly sensitive to their environment are also more likely to experience ASMR with a greater intensity.”

But that’s not all. They’ve found that these people with a greater sensitivity to their surroundings are also likely to hate some of the sounds and situations that, bizarrely, at other times, give them feelings of ASMR.

“ASMR triggers can produce completely opposite reactions in the same people, depending on the context. So, there is something known as misophonia which is literally hatred of sound. And this can produce a kind of really angry aversive responses to things like chewing, pen clicking… and we know from research that ASMR and misophonia are positively related, so if you experiences ASMR you're more likely to experience misophonia.”

ASMR videos can be really confusing to those who don't experience the sensations they try to create

Basically, if you're actively looking out for one of those sounds then you're going to love it because it's very intense, if you’re a person that falls in this category. However, if it's intruding on your environment without your permission, then you’re likely going to absolutely hate it.

An example of this might be if you’re someone who loves watching videos of animals eating (which is also a popular category of ASMR). If you’re looking for these videos yourself, you’ll love how they make you feel. However, plonked next to someone in the library who’s eating their lunch just as loudly, it’s probably not going to be quite as pleasant.

ASMR in lockdown

According to term tracker SEMrush there was a 22% increase in searches for the term “ASMR” during lockdown in the UK. The monthly searches raised from an average of 110,000 a month to 135,000, dropping down again to around 110,000 again in June when lockdown measures in the UK started to ease. It could be the case that at this time, more people were online in general. But why might some people look for ASMR videos (or videos that trigger ASMR-like responses) during a period such as a national lockdown?

Put simply, a big reason according to Dr Poerio is that people might just be finding ways to make themselves feel better if the pandemic is getting them down. The tingling sensations and relaxation you can experience are all positive things that might help (at least temporarily) distract you from what’s going on in the world.

“'Trying to down regulate negative affect’ is what we would we would say in psychology, but basically we mean ‘make themselves feel better when they're feeling bad.’”

Another thing that the pandemic has brought is a spotlight on feeling lonely. According to the Office for National Statistics, 50.8% of people aged 16-24 surveyed between April and May 2020 said they felt 'lockdown loneliness'. This, Dr Poerio thinks, could be a reason why people are finding comfort in particular types of ASMR videos, and her up research so far backs this up.

“There's a sense in which ASMR might provide social connection, in the absence of social contact.”

This could go as far as feeling like you’re actually being hugged when you can’t do so with your IRL loved ones.

“Another thing that is completely fascinating (which is what we're looking into at the moment) is this idea that actually, what ASMR is doing, is it's actually a form of touch, in the absence of actual touch. So the tingling that you get with ASMR is physiologically similar to the kinds of bodily sensations that you would get if somebody was maybe stroking your arm.”

She described this as a form of synaesthesia: “A sound or the sight of somebody being touched can induce feelings of actual touch.” This crossing of sensory wires, as it were, is similar to people who report, for example, different words having colours associated with them.

Having the experience of being touched then can, in theory, provide you with lots of the same benefits of having cuddles in real life. Dr Poerio explained: “We know from decades of research on affective touch that hugs, touch, stroking, that kind of social contact is very beneficial for well-being.”

While we can't do a lot of this in the real world at the moment, watching ASMR videos can apparently help

Another thing that might bolster this view is the fact that, through their research, Dr Poerio found that “videos that include vocal triggers produce a stronger ASMR response anyway than ones that are just auditory and non-person mediated”. So for example, ASMR videos where the ASM-artist (as they’re commonly known online) whispering up close to a microphone tends to produce stronger reactions in people than those with triggers based on tapping boxes, or pouring water.

What next?

Dr Poerio is clear that far more research is needed into the topic to answer all the questions that, as of now, remain a mystery. Does ASMR actually aid sleep? Does it have genuine therapeutic properties and can it eventually be used as a form of treatment for some mental health conditions?

In order to answer them though, much more research needs to be done into ASMR, and for that to happen, people need to be persuaded of the benefits of doing so.

Dr Poerio thinks this is starting to happen. She believes the public perception of ASMR is changing - no longer are videos of people folding towels a widely considered a source of ridicule. As Dr Poerio puts it: “It's not just this weird internet niche… it's actually a genuinely interesting thing that can tell us about the human condition.”

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