11 Facts About ASMR, the Phenomenon Behind Brain 'Tingles'

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iStock

In the video below, a young woman picks up a brown leather wallet, rubs it between her hands, then shakes it. The zipper pull trembles against the rows of linking teeth with a tinny sound. These sounds and sights have one goal: to make the viewer feel "tingles."

This reaction is called ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. The sensation is usually described as electrostatic-like tingles that travel across the scalp and back of the neck, occasionally extending to additional areas of the body. They occur in response to certain triggers—usually sounds and images, but sometimes touch as well.

Videos like the one above have exploded in popularity on YouTube over the past few years, as have online communities on Reddit and other social media, where people create videos, share triggers, and commune over the unusual sensations. Some have more than 100,000 members [PDF]. But while hundreds of thousands of people claim to have ASMR, science has only begun to investigate the phenomenon. Here's what we know so far.

1. THE TERM ASMR IS LESS THAN A DECADE OLD.

It was coined by Jennifer Allen, the creator of the first ASMR Facebook group, in 2010. As Vice reported in 2012:

“Autonomous” refers to the “individualistic nature of the triggers, and the capacity in many to facilitate or completely create the sensation at will,” Jenn told me in an email. “Sensory” and “response” are fairly obvious, and “meridian,” Jenn said, is a more polite term for “orgasm.”

She further clarified in 2016, "I wanted to use a word that would replace the word 'orgasm,' and referenced the dictionary definition, for which entries included the noun form, 'a point or period of highest development, greatest prosperity, or the like.'"

Allen isn't a scientist—she's a cybersecurity expert who has played a pivotal role in the organization of online ASMR communities for the last decade, and is a founder of ASMR University. Other names people use to refer to ASMR include “head tingles,” “brain tingles,” and “brain orgasm.” The experience is portrayed as pleasant without being sexual, and as accompanied by feelings of relaxation and well-being.

“My favorite way to describe it,” one popular "ASMRist" says, “is when you get that negative, horrible feeling of nails down a chalkboard—ASMR is the complete opposite."

2. ASMR HAS MANY TRIGGERS.

ASMR triggers are likely as varied as the individuals experiencing "the tingles," but there are recurrent themes. Soft, calm whispering, slow hand motions, and sounds made by objects are frequent triggers. A recent study found that sounds were more critical to having an ASMR response than sights, but it's not just any sounds—background music, for instance, prevented many viewers from experiencing tingles.

Many ASMR videos are centered on handling objects in a very deliberate and focused manner. Favorites include unhurriedly folding towels, unpacking mail, or sorting baseball cards. Personal care and close attention are common themes: Some of the most watched ASMR videos include role-playing situations, in which the host simulates the act of giving a haircut, a beauty treatment, or a health checkup to the viewer.

3. PEOPLE DON'T NEED VIDEOS TO GET THE TINGLES.

The experience is not restricted to watching videos, though. "Soft voices are something that's very triggering for people with ASMR, as is whispering, or any socially intimate—not sexually intimate—acts," says Beverly Fredborg, author of two influential studies on ASMR at the University of Winnipeg. Many people experience the tingles for the first time in real life while feeling cared for by somebody kind and attentive, or while getting a manicure or foot massage: "They'll feel warm, and they'll feel calm and at peace, while they are experiencing these stimuli."

The Whisperlodge spa, in New York City, offers “an immersive sensory journey of live ASMR” in which customers are lightly touched with brushes or gentle steam, and lay down while people whisper in their ears. People seem to have a range of sensitivity, with the least sensitive people feeling ASMR only when they're being physically cared for in some way, while the most sensitive feel tingly from audio and visual cues alone.

4. THOSE WHO GET ASMR MAY BE MORE OPEN TO NEW EXPERIENCES …

The number of people among the general population who are what researchers call "ASMR-capable" is currently unknown, but research has started to produce some tantalizing clues about those who are. A 2017 study found that individuals who said they experienced ASMR had higher levels of openness-to-experience and neuroticism on the "big five" personality traits test (a standard metric of mental health used by psychologists) than those who do not—and the higher their scores, the more intense their ASMR responses were.

5. … AND THEIR BRAINS MAY BE WIRED DIFFERENTLY.

Another 2017 study used fMRI to scan the brains of 11 ASMR-capable participants and 11 non-ASMR-capable controls. The researchers found that people with ASMR had reduced functional connectivity between the frontal lobes—where much of our complex thought occurs—and sensory regions of the brain. But they had greater connectivity in some cortical regions that take part in executive control (goal-oriented behavior that relies on cognitive processes such as working memory) and resting state networks (the brain regions that are active by default, when we’re not trying to accomplish an explicit task). The scientists hypothesized that this “blending” of neural networks could give rise to the sensations that people experience during ASMR.

6. IF CERTAIN SOUNDS BOTHER YOU, YOU MAY HAVE ASMR.

Mouth sounds such as clicking, kissing, and eating are some of the most divisive triggers: They can induce strong ASMR in some people and an intense negative response in others. Some investigators have proposed that ASMR and misophonia, where triggering sounds cause anger and aversion, are the two extremes of the same sensory continuum. A 2018 study found that 50 percent of people suffering from misophonia also experience ASMR.

7. ASMR ISN'T THE SAME THING AS THE CHILLS YOU CAN GET FROM LISTENING TO MUSIC ...

It shares some characteristics with frisson (the chills that some people feel when listening to great music) and flow (the complete absorption and altered passage of time that people can feel when they are immersed in an activity). It also overlaps with synesthesia (a condition where stimulation in one sensory modality produces a perception in another one, such as hearing shapes, or tasting colors). But there are important differences too. For example, while ASMR’s tingles occur in response to relaxing situations, frisson usually happens when listening to exciting, rousing music. And as Frebourg notes, frisson tends to course through the entire body for just a few moments, while ASMR is localized to the head and neck, and can last 30 minutes or longer.

8. … AND EVIDENCE IS MOUNTING THAT IT'S A UNIQUE PHENOMENON.

Because of its connections to other sensory experiences, ASMR has lacked scientific recognition as a distinct experience, but that is changing. One 2018 study found that ASMR increased pleasurable feelings (such as tingles) in those who experienced it and reduced their heart rate. In contrast, frisson is known to produce higher heart rates.

9. ADVERTISERS WANT TO USE ASMR TO SELL YOU STUFF …

ASMR has gotten the attention of some food and drink advertisers, who are beginning to use recording and mixing technology to emphasize sounds—such as the crinkling of packages, or even an actor’s noisy chewing—that would normally be edited out from commercial ads. In 2016, KFC released a video in which actor George Hamilton, dressed as Colonel Sanders, folded handkerchiefs into pocket squares and noisily chomped on fried chicken, hitting two ASMR favorites at once.

The brand’s chief marketing officer, Kevin Hochman, told the Washington Post: “This is a community that is absolutely infatuated and enthusiastic about the sensorial experience of sound. ... To me, it makes a lot of sense, why we would at least try to enter this space in a small way. There’s a lot of comfort that’s associated with ASMR, and that’s what our food delivers.”

10. … AND ARTISTS ARE USING IT TO HEIGHTEN YOUR RESPONSE.

ASMR could make going to the movies a richer experience. In the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton designed one of the scenes, set in a hair salon, to provoke ASMR. “People work to make videos that elicit this response,” Dayton told Fast Company, “and we were wondering, ‘Could we get that response in a theater full of people?'” (Anecdotal reports suggest it worked.)

Some ASMRtists have started to explored the potential of the tingles in erotica, and others are mixing customary triggers with horror and gore content to generate even greater shivers down viewers’ spines. "There's absolutely a subset of video creators doing more quirky and strange, experimental stuff," ASMR horror star Phoenician Sailor said in a 2016 Motherboard interview. "I really like that people are trying out the crazier things. There's only so many ways you can tap on a piece of plastic.”

11. BOB ROSS IS AN ASMR FAVORITE.

All the characteristics The Joy of Painting host was famous for—soothing voice, calm actions, a gentle affect, the tap-tap-tap sound he made on the canvas as he painted his "happy little trees"—make him a natural ASMR star. As one Redditer recently noted, the 19th most popular post on the Reddit ASMR channel is an announcement from 2016 that Bob Ross videos were going to be livestreamed for nine days straight.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

A New DNA Test Will Break Down Your Cat's Breed

Basepaws
Basepaws

Modern DNA testing kits can reveal a lot of information about you just by sending your spit off to a lab for analysis. As a result, it's easier than ever to learn about your personal ancestry and health risks. And now, the same goes for your cat, too.

Basepaws is now offering what it calls the "world's first DNA test for cats," which can tell you which breeds your beloved fur baby likely descended from, in addition to other information about their characteristics. The CatKit will reveal whether your little Simba is more similar to an American Shorthair, Abyssinian, or one of the other 30 breeds on record, as well as determining which of the "big cats" (think lions) your kitty has the most in common with.

Here's how it works: After receiving your kit in the mail, you will be asked to collect a DNA sample from your feline friend. The current kit includes adhesives for collecting cat hair, but Basepaws will soon roll out new kits that call for saliva samples instead. (This will provide a more consistent DNA sample, while also allowing staff to process more samples at once, according to a company spokesperson. It also will make it easier to collect samples from hairless cats like Sphinxes.)

A cat DNA test result
Basepaws

Once you collect the sample, just mail it in and wait eight to 12 weeks for your report. Basepaws uses sequencing machines to "read" your kitty's genetic code, comparing it to the sequences of other cats in its network. "More than 99 percent of your cat's genetic sequence will be similar to every other cat; it's the small differences that make your cat unique," Basepaws writes on its website.

In the future, Basepaws will also be able to determine your cat's predisposition for certain diseases, as well as their personality and physical traits. The company holds on to your cat's genetic data, allowing it to provide updates about your cat as the Basepaws database continues to grow.

Order a kit on the Basepaws website for $95. Enter the code "MEOWRCH-I5W3RH" at the checkout for a 10 percent discount.

And don't feel left out if you're a dog lover rather than a cat person—Wisdom Panel offers a similar service for canine companions. Its kit is available for $73 on Amazon.

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