Why do only some people get ASMR tingling?

key takeaways

  • People who get a good “sting” response from ASMR videos are also more likely to have anxiety traits and feel less anxious after watching, a new study finds.
  • ASMR can relieve anxiety like social connection.
  • Experts say ASMR is a convenient way to relax, reduce anxiety and even induce sleep.

Over the past few years, ASMR has become an internet phenomenon that allows people all over the world to sleep soundly and relax. But why do only some people experience “brain tingling” after listening to these videos and podcasts?

Researchers from England’s Northumbria University found that a tendency to have “high trait neuroticism” or to frequently experience negative emotional states such as anxiety predicts a person’s ability to experience the positive, “tingling” sensations associated with ASMR.

What is ASMR?

ASMR stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” and is said to have been coined 12 years ago by Jennifer Allen, who created a Facebook group for it. It is used to describe the tingling or calming feeling people experience in response to certain audio or visual stimuli.

Craig Richard, Ph.D., a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University in Virginia, told VigorTip that the term describes the deep relaxation that accompanies a tingling scalp. Richard has been involved in research on the subject and found that the tingling sensation of relaxation often comes from hearing and/or watching “gentle voices, light touches and personal attention from a caring person”.

However, not everyone who talks to you about ASMR will say they have experienced it. Dr Joanna Greer, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University and co-author of the study, and colleagues found that higher levels of anxiety not only made you more likely to experience brain tingling, but also predicted ASMR has the ability to help you soothe your anxiety.

But even if you don’t have that “tingling” feeling, you probably haven’t found it yet.

“Many people find that they have to try many different ASMR triggers to find the one that works for them,” said Richard, who also founded the ASMR University website and is the host of the ASMR podcast Sleep Whispers.

The study was published in PLoS One Early February.

what does this mean to you

If you already like ASMR, or are interested in it, there is no shortage of free, accessible material online. Try searching the web or YouTube for all kinds of ASMRs – people eating, putting on makeup, fake haircuts, or just touching and tapping things. And the ASMR podcast. Some say painter Bob Ross also does some great ASMR.

ASMR can ease anxiety

During the pandemic, the researchers asked 64 participants to spend 10 to 15 minutes at home listening to and watching selected ASMR videos. After all, Greer said, it might make the findings more realistic because people can control their space and feel more relaxed, which is said to be an ASMR-induced effect.

They also sent some questionnaires to the participants before and after the video. The idea was to investigate the association between state anxiety, trait anxiety, and ASMR. State anxiety refers to “the moment-to-moment level of anxiety an individual experiences”, while trait anxiety reflects “a stable and persistent tendency to experience anxiety.”

That said, some people are more prone to anxiety, which may be due to biological and environmental factors.

Greer and colleagues also asked participants about their previous experience with ASMR and had them complete a survey about their mental health, which included questions to identify anxiety-related traits, such as neuroticism.

They found that people who got a good “sting” response from the video were also more likely to have anxiety traits. What’s more, these people felt that the video relieved their anxiety.

Greer said the study could encourage further investigation into how ASMR might be used to relieve anxiety. “It doesn’t matter if they experienced a sting,” Greer added.

Still, their sample size was small, and most of the participants were identified as women. While having participants listen at home may have unexpected benefits, the researchers couldn’t see exactly what the participants were doing. Future research may require a more controlled environment, such as a laboratory.

How does ASMR work?

When someone experiences tingling associated with ASMR, specific areas of the brain become more active.

“Some of these regions highlighted the possible involvement of dopamine and oxytocin,” Richard said. Dopamine activity is associated with anticipation of reward, and oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, may be central to ASMR.

Richard added that behaviors that trigger oxytocin release, such as tousling someone’s hair, making connections during a conversation, and hugging are similar to those that trigger ASMR.

Here’s how it might work in the brain: ASMR activates the release of oxytocin in the prefrontal cortex (the brain region behind the forehead), which is involved in self-awareness and social behavior. This process is critical to generating the rewarding feeling we get when we have a meaningful and/or loving interaction with someone.

This whole process is known to inspire feelings of relaxation and comfort, and reduce stress. The importance of social support to a person’s health, well-being and recovery from stress is well documented. Recent research echoes the same message during times of adversity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

It turns out that when you can’t have a meaningful interaction with someone, ASMR can provide a temporary simulation of that interaction.

Overall, past research has found that ASMR helps reduce stress, get more sleep, and lower heart rate, Richard added.

“Many patients seek treatment to reduce anxiety, overcome insomnia and lower heart rate,” he said. “Early research on ASMR supports that it may be helpful for patients facing these challenges.”

Why can’t some people feel it?

ASMR may be trending, but not everyone you talk to will share that “tingling” feeling. Why?

“Some people have different genetic sequences that make them more sensitive to oxytocin or other brain chemicals involved in ASMR,” explains Richard.

At the same time, he added, life experiences, cultural influences and even mindsets can affect a person’s ability to experience ASMR. Not enough research has been done on this, but Greer’s research may offer some insights.

If you haven’t experienced these stings and want to, don’t lose hope, Richard says. “Some people may actually experience ASMR without knowing it because they’ve only tried one or two ASMR videos and it didn’t work,” he said.

Low-risk, accessible tools

ASMR is everywhere. You can find it in podcasts, videos, social media, and more.

In addition to being easy to access, ASMR is also low risk: at worst it doesn’t work or is a little unpleasant. If you don’t like it, you can always close the video or podcast.

If you want to see if ASMR helps you fall asleep, Richard recommends looking for content that conflicts with visuals. “Podcasts don’t have the bright lights and visual distractions that might interfere with falling asleep,” Richard said.

Both Richard and Greer would like to see ASMR research develop. It could deepen our understanding of this phenomenon and help design interventions to treat anxiety and insomnia.

“Health professionals are already using or recommending mindfulness, meditation, and other relaxation techniques to help patients,” Richard said, “so ASMR could be another valuable tool in the healthcare toolbox.”

Greer agreed. “It’s probably a tool that you can use whether you feel the tingling or not,” she said.