Teasing the Science Behind Brain Tingles in ASMR

ASMR and its quest for legitimacy within the scientific community.

Posted Mar 14, 2021 |

 Yulia Lisitsa/Shutterstock
"People who come across ASMR videos for the first time may find them uncomfortable," warns Dr. Bryson Lochte.
Source: Yulia Lisitsa/Shutterstock

Key Points:

  • ASMR—a pleasant tingling sensation that some people feel in response to certain stimuli—is a popular online phenomenon with little scientific research to support it.
  • Even though countless people claim to experience ASMR, researchers say they struggle to have studies on it funded or taken seriously by the scientific community.
  • Recent findings, however, suggest that ASMR has valid neurobiological underpinnings and may have a future as a complement to traditional mental health treatment.
  • ASMR could help patients relax or sleep, experts speculate—but shouldn't be seen as a replacement for more structured, evidence-based forms of therapy

Almost a decade ago, Bryson Lochte was a student at Dartmouth College, mulling over his senior honors thesis topic. Completing a thesis would require a major commitment of time and effort. Still, it would also grant him access to the six-ton Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine nestled in the basement of the university's psychology department. With it, he could measure and map brain activity and, hopefully, catch a novel glimpse into the inner workings of the human mind.

While brainstorming ideas, Lochte stumbled into the world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). ASMR refers to a pleasant tingling sensation that some people feel in response to stimuli like gentle sounds, light touch, and personal attention. Some ASMR enthusiasts seek out videos filled with carefully crafted cues ranging from scalp massaging, soap carving, foam squeezing, to soft whispering.

"People who come across ASMR videos for the first time may find them uncomfortable," says Lochte, but it's hard to deny the popularity of ASMR. Many ASMR YouTubers draw in millions of viewers, and their comment sections are full of people gushing about how the videos help them to relax, focus, or fall asleep.

Lochte began to wonder how these triggers affected the brain. As a pilot project, Lochte recruited ten subjects who reported sensitivity to ASMR to undergo brain MRI scans while watching ASMR videos. After analyzing the data, Lochte found increased activity in brain regions associated with reward and emotional arousal. He also found patterns associated with group grooming and musical frisson—the goosebumps that some feel when listening to music. Lochte's research would be the first to associate activation of specific brain areas with ASMR.

With the rising popularity of ASMR videos, Bryson's college thesis caught the public's attention and was profiled in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post

Why It's Difficult to Study ASMR

Many asked Lochte about his findings, but he had to stay mum. Academia demands that researchers follow specific steps to legitimize their findings within the scientific community. Above all, researchers must allow other experts to formally assess their data before it is published—a process called peer review. Passing peer review is intended to assure others of the paper’s quality. Bypassing peer review and sharing the findings with the public would jeopardize the entire research project. 

"It's hard to turn a viral phenomenon into legitimate science," said Lochte, alluding to the typical process and politics of publishing a research paper. Before submitting his manuscript to a peer-review journal, Lochte went back and forth with his research advisor, polishing his manuscript until it satisfied the latter's technical and stylistic specifications. Lochte's research wouldn't just be his own work; it would serve as a reflection of the quality and output of his advisor's laboratory.

"People's reputations were at stake," Lochte reflected. "And researchers don't want to be associated with things that are not deemed to be serious. What goes viral in the media is not what the researchers are interested in studying."

Lochte continued to revise his manuscript after graduating from Dartmouth College. Meanwhile, he pursued further study into the human mind. He joined a research lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, before setting off to California for his medical degree. In 2018, he finally published his findings, "An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)" in the journal Bioimpacts—five years after ushering his participants into the MRI machine.

The fact that a college student came up with the first study to unveil the mechanism of ASMR should not be surprising. In fact, as a novice researcher motivated by curiosity with nothing to lose, Lochte was ideally suited to tackle such an ostensibly odd phenomenon.

The range of human experiences is vast, but the resource and workforce devoted to their study are finite. Even the most pressing questions of our generation, from climate change to dementia, must compete with one another for limited funding and public attention. Scientists must carefully weigh between novelty and practicality when proposing a research project; it is easier to mine an established vein of research than to go prospecting in a new, unfamiliar territory. However, this tendency to explore familiar topics creates a positive feedback loop, whereas subjects that have not been studied will continue to languish at the fringes of scientific respectability.

What ASMR Research Has Found So Far

Dr. Stephen D. Smith is an associate professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Winnipeg. His lab is one of the small handful in the world that study the scientific underpinnings of ASMR.

Technically, the Smith Lab studies how spinal cord neurons respond to emotions, but its funding sources allow the laboratory to use any remaining funds to delve into new endeavors. Although ASMR is more of a side project, the Smith Lab's contributions to the field—which includes finding similarities in electrical brain activity between ASMR and meditation and isolating personality traits common to those who experience ASMR—have been substantial because very few individuals are currently working on it.

Smith notes that ASMR is not taken seriously by many scientists. "I have definitely had problems publishing research related to ASMR. Although my colleagues and I have been able to publish a few papers in higher-impact journals, we have also received numerous rejection emails from journals stating that the topic was not suitable for their journal."

"A big problem is the name itself," states Smith, alluding to the term "meridian," which describes the pathways of life force in Chinese medicine. "It is imprecise and sounds like something that should be related to healing crystals or aromatherapy. But, hundreds of thousands of people do experience the sensory-emotional phenomenon, so I think it is worth studying."

ASMR and Mental Health Treatment

Smith was cautiously optimistic about the potential role of ASMR in addressing mental health. He understood why some hope—incorrectly—that ASMR could serve as a substitute for therapy. "ASMR videos are free, they can be viewed at home at a time that is convenient, and they don't involve much effort from the viewer." 

As a scientist, Smith was frank about the limits of ASMR. "The problem is that many psychological disorders involve self-defeating thought processes that can't be entirely fixed through relaxation. A therapist will teach these individuals cognitive strategies to reduce these negative thought patterns. This changing of thought patterns is hard work. It also involves time (and money for therapy). But, it's an important tool for individuals with psychological disorders to have because it helps people monitor their own thought processes."

Smith underscored that ASMR needed to be validated by large-scale clinical trials before being deployed in patient care. That said, he added, "I do think that it might be a very useful supplement to existing therapies. If an individual received some cognitive training to help them reduce their negative interpretations of life events and also used ASMR to help them relax and sleep, it could be very helpful to people who experience ASMR."

Lochte, now training as a psychiatry resident at Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California, painted a broad picture of how clinicians could use findings from ASMR research in health care. "Perhaps doctors will be able to incorporate components of ASMR into clinical exams to help patients feel more relaxed and be more forthcoming to share their symptoms. Perhaps ASMR can be packaged in a prescribed, measurable therapy to address anxiety or depression. Perhaps specific pharmaceutical compounds could target brain regions associated with ASMR." 

Lochte's unlikely college research experience shows how the scientific community can draw upon the wisdom of crowds to identify new research topics. Lochte mused, "Many human phenomena are pushed aside in favor of studying a very narrow list of established topics. Millions of people may be experiencing something unique, and science may be ignoring it."

"Maybe that shows how illogical science research is."