JUN 25, 2018 5:17 AM PDT

How Do ASMR Videos Change the Brain?

For those who struggle with anxiety or insomnia, finding relief and a good night's sleep can be difficult. Medications are often habit-forming and can't be used when a person has to drive or be alert.

A new method to chill out and possibly get some sleep comes in the form of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos. ASMR is the name for an effect that happens in some people while watching or listening to specific sounds. Many report "brain tingles" and a very distinct sensation that relaxes them.

There hasn't been much research on ASMR. On YouTube, there are more than 13 million ASMR videos that include very ordinary sounds and triggers like tapping, whispering, or the sounds of everyday activities like papers rustling. A new study from the University of Sheffield in the UK is the first study of its kind to look at ASMR and how the brain behaves when listening or watching videos. Investigators wanted to know the mechanism behind the effect and if it was psychological or physiological.

Not everyone has the same reaction to the soothing videos. Many find them "creepy" or distracting but those who get what is sometimes described as a "brain orgasm" swear by them for stress relief. The tingling starts at the crown of the head and spreads down to the back of the head and shoulders, progressing, for some, to the rest of the body. Following that, fans say they have a sense of calm and relaxation. In the work at the university, the effect of the videos on heart rate was also studied.

There has been research on how the brain reacts to similar stimuli like chills that can come from hearing certain pieces of music or fright when watching a scary movie, but the particular effects seen in ASMR have not been studied extensively. Dr. Giulia Poerio, of the University of Sheffield's Department of Psychology, is the lead author on the study and explained, "Lots of people report experiencing ASMR since childhood and awareness of the sensation has risen dramatically over the past decade due to internet sites such as YouTube and Reddit. However, ASMR has gone virtually unnoticed in scientific research which is why we wanted to examine whether watching ASMR videos reliably produces feelings of relaxation and accompanying changes in the body – such as decreased heart rate."

In one part of the research, they examined the physiological changed in participants who watched two ASMR videos and one video that was not designed as an ASMR experience. In the lab, they had a control group of participants who said they had never experienced any relaxing effect from the videos. In the other half of the cohort were regular ASMR viewers who always experienced the common tingles and stress reduction from the clips. Both groups were matched in terms of gender and age.

The results showed that in the group of participants who were ASMR regulars, heart rates were reduced by an average rate of 3.14 beats per minute compared to the non-ASMR group. The ASMR group also reported more relaxation, feelings of well-being and social connectedness. In another experiment included in the study, over 1,000 study volunteers completed online surveys after watching ASMR clips and video clips that were not designed to elicit an ASMR effect. Feelings of stress, anxiety, and sadness were much less in those who reported feeling the brain-tingling response to the ASMR video clips compared to those who did not experience the tingling reaction. While watching the control videos there was no significant difference between the two groups of participants.

The study is published in the open-access journal PLOS One. The video below, with the team from Sheffield, has more information on the work, check it out.

Sources: University of Sheffield, Great Britain  PLOS One  BBC

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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