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

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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.

Why Do Hangovers Get Worse As You Get Older?

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iStock/OcusFocus

“I just can’t drink like I used to” is a common refrain among people pushing 30 and beyond. This is roughly the age when it starts getting harder to bounce back from a night of partying, and unfortunately, it keeps getting harder from there on out.

Even if you were the keg flip king or queen in college, consuming the same amount of beer at 29 that you consumed at 21 will likely have you guzzling Gatorade in bed the next day. It’s true that hangovers tend to worsen with age, and it’s not just because you have a lower alcohol tolerance from going out less. Age affects your body in various ways, and the way you process alcohol is one of them.

Because your body interprets alcohol as poison, your liver steps in to convert it into different chemicals that are easier to break down and eliminate from your body. As you get older, though, your liver produces less of the enzymes and antioxidants that help metabolize alcohol, according to a study from South Korea. One of these enzymes—called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH)— has been called the “primary defense” against alcohol. It kicks off the multi-step process of alcohol metabolization by turning the beer or booze—or whatever you imbibed—into a chemical compound called acetaldehyde. Ironically, this substance is even more toxic than your tipple of choice, and a build-up of acetaldehyde can cause nausea, palpitations, and face flushing. It usually isn’t left in this state for long, though.

Another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) helps convert the bad toxin into a new substance called acetate, which is a little like vinegar. Lastly, it’s converted into carbon dioxide or water and expelled from your body. You’ve probably heard the one-drink-per-hour recommendation, which is roughly how long it takes for your liver to complete this whole process.

So what does this mean for occasional drinkers whose mid-20s have come and gone? To summarize: As your liver enzymes diminish with age, your body becomes less efficient at metabolizing alcohol. The alcohol lingers longer in your body, leading to prolonged hangover symptoms like headaches and nausea.

This phenomenon can also partly be explained by the fact that our bodies tend to lose muscle and water over time. People with more body fat don’t break down alcohol as well, and less water in your body means that the booze stays concentrated in your system longer, The Cut reports. This is one of the reasons why women, who tend to have a higher body fat percentage than men, often suffer worse hangovers than their male counterparts. (Additionally, women have fewer ADH enzymes.)

More depressingly, as you get older, your immune system deteriorates through a process called immunosenescence. This means that recovering from anything—hangovers included—is more challenging with age. "When we get older, our whole recovery process for everything we do is harder, longer, and slower," gastroenterologist Mark Welton told Men’s Health.

This may seem like a buzzkill, but we're not telling you to put down the pint. However, if you're going to drink, just be aware of your body’s limitations. Shots of cotton candy-flavored vodka were a bad idea in college, and they’re an especially bad idea now. Trust us.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

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