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Brain tingles: can ASMR sounds help you sleep?

New trends are emerging in ASMR content as ASMRtists go beyond the usual soothing sounds of relaxation

The one common theme across pretty much all ASMR content these days is the sound of gentle whispering.
The one common theme across pretty much all ASMR content these days is the sound of gentle whispering. (iStock)

The sound hits home when I close my eyes: I can sense the feeling of someone running their fingers through my hair, their fingertips moving soothingly over my scalp. The snug earphones ensure the impact comes to life. This is my mind reacting to the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) sounds from an Instagram reel created by an ASMR video creator, or ASMRtist, called Whispering Willow, where she does nothing but softly scratch the surface of a fluffy microphone cover.

While the term ASMR was coined around 2010, the popularity of the phenomenon has seen an upward tick in the last few years. During the covid-19-induced lockdowns, many people reportedly took to ASMR to relieve stress and induce sleep.

What is it, though? According to a 2015 paper in the scientific mega journal PeerJ, ASMR is a sensory phenomenon in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck and, at times, down the spinal region in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli. This sensation is widely reported to be accompanied by feelings of relaxation and well-being, the paper explains, describing ASMR as a “flow-like mental state”.

The stimuli vary, from the sounds of nature and whispering to music playlists and reels—the list is growing every day. Those who do respond to ASMR—not everyone does, research confirms—report using ASMR videos to help with anxiety, fall asleep, and, in some cases, even ease pain symptoms.

A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Sheffield, UK, found that the relaxing “brain tingles” experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as whispering or tapping and slow hand movements, may have benefits for both mental and physical health. Through the study, the first of its kind to examine the physiological underpinnings of ASMR, the researchers found that those who experience the phenomenon had significantly reduced heart rates while watching ASMR videos.

While listening to the sound of nature—digitally—is one way of experiencing ASMR, newer trends include everything from music playlists on streaming apps to quick reels on Instagram that are full of diverse ASMR triggers. In 2016 alone, there were roughly 5.2 million ASMR videos on YouTube, according to consumer trends data from Google. That number has grown, as has the variety of ASMR content. According to Google, the year 2021 ended with more than 65 billion views of videos related to ASMR on YouTube.

Gentle whispers

The one common theme across pretty much all ASMR content these days is the sound of gentle whispering. In fact, one of the most popular ASMR channels on YouTube is named Gentle Whispering ASMR and is run by ASMRtist Maria Gentlewhispering. Maria’s channel has over 2.26 million subscribers.

Apart from whispering, you will find ASMRtists using different techniques: blowing down the microphone, scratching and tapping (this could involve everything from wood to glass), even the rustle of paper. In some cases, ASMRtists will ask you to follow their directions. This involves eye movements (opening and closing them on cue) or breath control. One of my favourites is an artist called Whispering Willow ASMR, who has more than 462,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than a million followers on TikTok.

Some videos even feature ASMRtists eating, with the focus on the sound of chewing or food being prepared. Now there’s even wood soup ASMR: stirring wooden balls (or other shapes, depending on the themes) with a wooden spoon in a wooden bowl with oil. As outrageous as that might sound, the sound emanating from the wooden shapes clattering against each other is oddly satisfying. The optics are something else too.

Some ASMR artists are trying newer sensory widget toys, playing with slimes (yes!) and lighting and more to stimulate auditory ASMR. On Spotify, you will find playlists on ASMR haircuts (the high-quality sound of a pair of scissors snipping at hair can be really comforting), ASMR massage sounds and other triggers, be it the sound of plastic bubble wraps or something as simple as the opening and closing of buttons.

Is ASMR for you?

First, though, it would be useful to find out if you can respond to ASMR in the first place. According to a February article on the UCLA Health website, researchers estimate that approximately one in five people can experience ASMR. The article adds: “Preliminary research suggests that ASMR shares sensory pathways with experiences like becoming elated by a piece of music or feeling a shiver of delight at something aesthetically pleasing.”

The article also cites a 2017 ASMR study that found participants’ heart rates and breathing slowed to levels comparable to relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga.

Why do only some people feel it? “This kind of response has to do a lot with familiarity and emotional connect,” says Vinay Goyal, director, neurology, Institute of Neurosciences, at the Medanta hospital in Gurugram, Haryana. “If you record an EEG of the brain, you will see a lot of beta activity, which shows how anxious or hyperactive you are. When you do any sort of music therapy—or any other therapy—we have noticed that these beta waves go down. Scientifically, it is very well known that when the beta waves go down, you feel better and relaxed.”

Since ASMR is mostly audio-centric, picking good headphones to listen to such content helps. Basically, you are looking for headphones that can deliver rich and clear sound quality. Active noise cancellation is a plus. For some, earbuds might work better, depending on fit and comfort.

There’s only one way to find out if ASMR sounds work for you. Just plug in and hit the play button.

Also read: Quiet places are becoming rare. How do you save them?

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