So many sounds get under my skin and even anger me. I’ve left the dinner table after being revolted by hearing others chewing and swallowing. When someone whispers something to me at the movies, it’s so creepy that I actually shudder.
The first time I heard an autonomous sensory meridian response—or ASMR—video, my sound sensitivities were triggered, but not in a good way. I was so creeped out that I could only listen for a few seconds.
Youtube has millions of ASMR videos showing people whispering, crinkling paper and tapping on tables. People rave about ASMR as a self-care tool, and YouTube ASMR channels rack up millions of viewers. It’s become ingrained in pop culture, and was even featured in Michelob Ultra Gold’s Super Bowl commercial this year, starring actress Zoe Kravitz whispering into a microphone while surrounded by a mountain landscape. The ad has more than 14 million views on YouTube.
Those who love ASMR get an involuntary pleasant warm, tingling sensation from sounds like whispering, soft-speaking, tapping or scratching. The tingling leads to a calm, relaxed feeling that reduces anxiety. I feel the opposite when I hear ASMR videos. I feel creeped out, stressed, anxious, and even angry—no tingles.
So, why do some people feel an overwhelming sense of calm and others a sense of agitation, even rage, from ASMR videos?
That remains unanswered by research, but there are several theories, says Craig Richard, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University, author of Brain Tingles and founder of the site ASMR University.
“It’s definitely this complex thing that probably over time we’ll start parsing out some of the factors that are involved,” he says. “But right now, there is no scientific association with any cause or aspect of why some people are relaxed by ASMR videos and some people can’t turn them off quick enough.”
Not everyone experiences ASMR.
ASMR refers to the tingling sensation felt when interacting with sounds. But not everyone actually experiences it, and some are neutral to it.
Spencer Gerrol, a cognitive scientist and founder of neuroanalytics company Spark Neuro, speculates that people who say they dislike ASMR are actually not experiencers. “It begs the question: Are they just not experiencing it, and therefore, it’s just neutral to them?” he says. “Or, are they experiencing something that they really don’t like?”
Most ASMR research has relied on self-reporting from experiencers. A 2018 study published in the journal PLOS ONE revealed that tingling sensations and positive reactions occurred only in people who said they experience ASMR. They also showed reduced heart rates and increased skin conductance levels when watching ASMR videos.
Brain scans on people who reported being ASMR experiencers found that the areas of the brain associated with the reward system and emotional arousal light up when they watch ASMR videos, according to another 2018 study.
ASMR experiencers also may have certain personality types, according to research, including being open to new experiencesand neuroticism and are less likely to exhibit conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness.
ASMR haters may have misophonia.
Feeling anger, anxiety or agitation from the sounds in ASMR content could be a sign of the condition misophonia, or “hatred of sound.” Chewing, whispering, yawning and other sounds can spark a strong negative emotional response, often described as “fight-or-flight”, for people with misophonia.
But Richard says parallels exist between ASMR and misophonia—hypersensitivity to sounds, triggers from sounds and consistent psychological or physical responses to the sound, whether negative or positive. Misophonia may also be genetic.
In a 2017 study on misophonia, responses were almost evenly split for people asked if they experienced a “pleasurable tingling sensation” from ASMR-like sounds. ASMR and misophonia may be closely linked, but Richard emphasizes that ASMR tingles aren’t the same as the chills felt when interacting with something creepy, scary or exciting.
Chills bring an elevated heart rate and are usually felt on the skin. Tingles lower heart rate and are “light, sparkly and pleasurable,” typically felt on the scalp and internally, not on the skin’s surface, Richard says.
“My feeling is that when people say, ‘Those tingles didn’t feel pleasurable,’ that could have been chills,” he says.
Experiences and expectations can affect feelings about ASMR.
ASMR is closely linked to past experiences, with the sensation resembling feeling nurtured as a child. This can be comforting to some, Gerrol says.
“For some people, perhaps there was something that was not pleasant in their childhood, those same sensations can actually be something they recoil against,” he says.
Perceptions about ASMR also influence reactions to it. When people were told that ASMR content would bring a pleasurable experience, they had a positive experience, a 2018 study revealed. But a perceived negative experience led to a negative reaction.
Fear of being judged could motivate some people to say they dislike ASMR, Gerrol says, explaining that the perceived weirdness of the videos may make people feel awkward about saying they like them. “Are they creeped out by it because they hate it?” he says. “Or, are they freaked out by it because actually a little bit of them liked it, but they don’t really want to like it?”
Can we ever learn to love ASMR?
Those who feel rage, stress or creeped out from ASMR videos likely can’t be trained to like them, scientists say. Being open to an ASMR experience, however, could lead to some level of enjoyment, even for people who say they don’t like them, Gerrol says.
“But it’s not because the person trains themselves; it’s because the person became open to enjoying something that they were already preconditioned to enjoy,” he says.
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