Saved by a Soundtrack: Why ASMR is Balm for a Pandemic
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response sounds can help lead to relaxation
Like so many others, I have spent much of this pandemic cooped up inside, finding it hard to concentrate on work or daily life. Too often, I sit doomscrolling about the latest COVID-19 infection rates, half-listening to my husband's endless Zoom calls in the background. I sense my breathing getting shallower; my shoulders creeping higher and tighter.
I've cycled through a bunch of alleged stress-busting tactics: online crossword puzzles, meditation apps, and beginner's yoga on YouTube.
Nothing really grabbed me or relaxed me until the YouTube algorithm figured out that I was having a (very) hard time and began suggesting different kinds of content. I took the bait and fell into the steepest of rabbit holes, calming my mood and spirit: ASMR.
Understand the ASMR Experience
Those four letters stand for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a term coined about a decade ago to describe the pleasant, tingling, shivery sensation some people experience in response to sensory input. (In its early days, ASMR was referred to as a "brain-gasm," a word many were happy to jettison.) It seems some people are hard-wired for the response; others, not so much, but researchers don't fully understand why. They are just beginning to study the phenomenon.
Judging by the jillions of uploaded videos (okay, I exaggerate; the number is actually just over 5 million), some of the most common ASMR triggers are soft sounds – a whispering voice, hair being brushed, a gentle tapping of fingers on different surfaces. You can get a taste of the 20 top stimuli here.
I can't say that I felt full goosebump-y bliss when listening, but more of a prickling sensation and a post-massage or hot bath kind of ease. Research indicates that ASMR encourages a decrease in heart rate, an indicator of relaxation.
In fact, a huge portion of ASMR content is geared towards encouraging sleep, but I skipped over those. Frankly, some of them struck me as a bit creepy. The role-play ones with people "tucking you in at night" – stirring tea, smoothing blankets, reading a story – made me feel uncomfortably infantilized. And the slew of softcore-ish kissing-sound videos weren't for me either.
Research indicates that ASMR encourages a decrease in heart rate, an indicator of relaxation.
But others – like the nail-polish cataloging video on the Gentle Whispering ASMR channel, with about two million subscribers – had more appeal. Described as being "full of hushed whispers, clicking of bottles and page flipping…Great for listening as you work or study," it was indeed good white noise, a cross between lulling ambient tones and engaging sound sparks that my ears happily tried to identify.
As the pandemic unfurled to ever more atrocious levels, these listen-a-thons kept grounding me in a way that mere music couldn't. It was as if my brain and my senses were engaged in a whole new, pleasant manner. It reminded me of when, at age 50, I bit into a gooseberry for the first time, and felt that rare thrill of experiencing something completely new, long after childhood.
Am I Too Old for This?
I have to admit, though, as I worked my way through the ASMR videos, I had that familiar midlife feeling of, "Hmm, these are meant for millennials." The relative youth of the people (usually female) featured and the unapologetic pursuit of self-care made me feel like a boomer interloper.
I asked Craig Richard, founder of ASMR University, and author of the book "Brain Tingles" for his perspective.
"As ASMR initially grew in awareness on Reddit and YouTube, it was most popular among a younger demographic, but older demographics are becoming more aware of it," says Richard, who is also professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University's School of Pharmacy in Winchester, Va. "It makes sense that they'd embrace new relaxation techniques, like ASMR, that are free, effective and easily accessed through podcasts and videos. I recently learned that thirty-eight percent of listeners to my Sleep Whispers podcast are over the age of forty-five."
I felt slightly ashamed of my oddball habit. Shouldn't I be deep-diving into classical music?
Indeed, ASMR seems to be having a moment recently with people of all ages. There have been TV commercials that parlay the phenomenon – for instance, the Michelob Ultra ad starring Zoe Kravitz, whispering and tapping on a beer bottle.
Some literary types have even mined great novels to find early clues of ASMR. Consider one compelling example, this line from Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," which describes a woman's voice as sounding "like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper's, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound."
Branching Out with ASMR
With my curiosity piqued, I continued racking up views on YouTube. For a while, I listened to an hour-long recording of crinkling papers, foils and more – with no voice-overs – as the soundtrack while doing research for my job.
I felt slightly ashamed of my oddball habit. Shouldn't I be deep-diving into classical music? But my ASMR video rotation helped me de-tense, much like listening to the ocean or wind chimes, and it made me feel, to use the slang of the day, more "in the moment." Less worried about COVID-19. I liked it, period.
After indulging in the crinkle-fest and other similar tracks, I took a tangent in my ASMR content consumption. I discovered a cache of fuzzy, comforting "lo-fi beats" and "rainy day coffee shop ambience" tunes, served up by the all-knowing YouTube algorithm.
Relaxing and Reassuring Playlists
Some of these loops last even longer than the other ASMR playlists I'd sampled – three, five and even eight hours. Earning millions of views and with 50,000 listeners at a given moment, they are usually accompanied by an animation of a cozy location and often a side pane of comments where listeners trade "I miss coffee with my friends at Starbucks so much!" comments. Reading those was like eavesdropping on conversations at a café.
I just adored listening to these. There was something incredibly relaxing and reassuring about these playlists and the way they reminded me of the familiar routines of pre-pandemic life. Therapy in an AirPod, perhaps.
Who knows if it will still be an aural lifeline when this pandemic ends?
Richard isn't convinced these tracks meet the criteria for true ASMR, which is "stimulated by positive, personal attention from a kind or caring person who is making gentle vocalizations, movements, and/or sounds…Nature sounds lack a human element, coffee-shop ambience lacks positive and personal attention and jazz may lack vocals or the personal element. For those who are ASMR-sensitive, they get a much deeper relaxation to true ASMR triggers…probably because positive, personal interactions stimulate oxytocin, a neurohormone that stimulates comfort and relaxation, and the other situations don't."
Perhaps because I didn't experience the full-tilt "brain tingles" of ASMR, I found these scritchy-scratchy sounds perfectly comforting. With my fake coffee shop playing, I experienced the same warm, safe feelings I got watching old black-and-white movies or having a phone call with my BFF from fifth grade. They stayed on heavy repeat as I caught up on emails or paid bills, keeping my anxiety at bay.
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has certainly deprived us of café society – or virtually any kind of society, to be honest. The stress and isolation may sit under the radar as we churn through our days – but it's intense.
Says Richard, "Many individuals are turning to ASMR podcasts and videos during these times, describing it as the ideal remedy during the pandemic because it stimulates the same areas of our brains that are simulated by healthy contact with loved ones. We observed this in a study that looked at activated brain regions during the feeling of ASMR."
Perhaps that's why I've been inexplicably drawn to ASMR videos during this lonely and upsetting time. Who knows if it will still be an aural lifeline when this pandemic ends? Maybe I'll go back to listening to Springsteen rip through "Born to Run." But right now, I'm staying put, plugged into this strangely soothing sound bath.