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Mysterious ASMR 'brain tingles' have health benefits, study finds

Masses of "tingleheads" watch ASMR videos to help them relax. They may be on to something, researchers say.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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When whispering, gentle pencil scratching or other sounds trigger a relaxing, pleasurable sensation — sometimes called “brain tingles” or “brain orgasms” — in certain people, it’s not just in their heads. Their body is responding, too, a new study has found.

The British authors call it the first research of its kind into the physiological aspects of autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. The mysterious phenomenon is having quite a moment, with masses of "tingleheads" turning to the more than 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube to help them relax.

Now, there’s finally evidence they’re actually relaxing. Hooked up to body monitors, study participants who said they experienced ASMR had significantly lower heart rates while watching ASMR videos, compared to people who weren’t affected by the triggers. They also felt more excited at the same time, showing signs of physiological arousal, though ASMR is not a sexual experience, contrary to a common misconception, the study noted.

ASMR is also different from chills people get from beautiful music or awe-inspiring events, which raise a person’s heart rate.

Lead study author Giulia Poerio, a psychology researcher at The University of Sheffield in the U.K., has herself experienced ASMR since childhood, though she didn't realize the phenomenon had a name or that she wasn’t alone until 2013.

“When I first found out that ASMR was something other people experienced and I started talking to people about ASMR, it often struck me how difficult it was for people who didn't experience the feeling to believe it was something real,” Poerio told TODAY.

“I do hope that the research will help people who experience ASMR to describe and explain it to other people such as friends and family without any sense of shame or embarrassment.”

Many ASMR fans describe the feeling as a warm, tingling and pleasant sensation starting at the crown of the head and spreading down the body, the paper noted. For Poerio, it’s a very relaxing sensation that puts her in an almost trance-like state, she said. The involuntary response is triggered in some people by everything from whispering and tapping, to hand movements and close personal attention. Some find watching soap cutting pleasurable, too.

The new study involved two separate experiments. In the first, 1,002 people watched videos with and without ASMR triggers, and then reported how they felt. The participants who self-identified as experiencing ASMR reported more frequent tingling, increased levels of excitement and calmness, and less stress and sadness while watching the ASMR videos.

The second experiment involved 110 people, with half self-identifying as ASMR experiencers and half as non-ASMR. Sensors recorded their heart rates and skin conductance levels (which indicate physiological arousal) as they watched videos with and without the triggers.

It turned out the hearts of ASMR participants beat slower while watching ASMR videos, reliably producing feelings of relaxation, and their skin conductance level rose, making it an arousing (but not sexual) experience at the same time, the paper noted.

The reductions in heart rate were comparable to mindfulness and music-induced stress reduction methods, suggesting the “brain tingles” may have health benefits, at least for people who experience ASMR, Poerio said. “Researching ASMR has many exciting possibilities,” she added.

There aren’t any estimates of what percentage of the population is capable of feeling ASMR, but the sheer amount of views of ASMR videos on YouTube suggests many people experience it, Poerio noted. There also isn’t a clear explanation why some people feel it, and others don't.

“We might also ask why some people experience music-induced or awe inspiring chills and others don't. Whether it is something that everyone could experience or whether it is something you either have or don't is an open question,” she added.

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