ASMR Theory and Total Relaxation
There has been a lot of coverage lately about a phenomenon known as ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, in the mainstream media. Essentially, ASMR is a set of audio or visual triggers which invoke a type of sensory “tingling” on your head or other areas of the body which is a result of a deep relaxation environment.
A lot of people seem to believe (erroneously) that ASMR is a “sexual” sort of thing, but I‘ve come to understand that what it really represents is a type of intimacy in certain situations. Now, “intimacy” in this regard is not ubiquitous for “sexual” and I believe people tend to throw them all in the same category lumped together - which is our first mistake.
One of the triggers for ASMR is a slow or accentuated speech pattern, often whispering or soft spoken. Another trigger for this is experiencing a high empathetic response to a situation or directed at an individual (such as yourself) but even if that empathetic response is directed toward another, we enter into a state of proprioception. In this manner, there is a high intimacy scenario – but again not sexual.
In the ASMR acronym, Meridian is another way of saying orgasm but in context it’s really like a brain orgasm. Originally when the community began to form, it was decided that overtly using the word “orgasm” would devalue the legitimacy of the ASMR response and so Meridian was chosen instead (for a very obvious reason). After all, there is already an issue of confusion over what exactly ASMR is about and too often people who do not have ASMR triggers falsely attribute the situational triggers to a sexual intimacy.
Therein is the differentiation that I believe many are missing, in that ASMR often comes in the form of empathetic intimacy. In conjunction with one of the other triggers (soft, accented, slow speech patterns) often referred to as the “Bob Ross” effect… it is a multi-trigger bombardment to relax you.
Painting happy little clouds and trees…
There really hasn’t been much actual research into the ASMR effects, but the reports of the symptoms are widespread worldwide. In essence, I’m not entirely certain the ASMR community has any idea what is going on, but they know generally what the effect is and how to trigger it as shown by the definition below, provided by http://www.asmr-research.org/ :
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a physical sensation characterized by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine and through the limbs.
Most ASMR episodes begin by an external or internal trigger, and are so divided for classification.Type A episodes are elicited by the experiencer using no external stimuli, and are typically achieved by specific thought patterns unique to the individual. Type B episodes are triggered involuntarily by an external trigger, via one or more senses, and may also involve specific thought patterns associated with the triggering event. Both types of triggers vary between individuals, but many are common to a large portion of ASMR enjoyers.
Common external triggers:
- Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
- Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
- Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
- Enjoying a piece of art or music
- Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner - examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
- Close, personal attention from another person
- Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back
This is a good start for understanding ASMR theory because it gives us vital clues as to what the mental state of the person may be with this experience. From there, we may better form an idea about what best describes ASMR and why it is effective for many (but not all). What comes next is my deconstruction for ASMR theory and what I believe is likely causing it. I do not proclaim to be an expert on this, but it may offer up some real insight as to what is actually going on.
This is written from my own point of view, as I am actually lucky enough to experience ASMR first hand. This post essentially is my theory about what’s going on to enable ASMR and why it is triggered. Hopefully it is helpful for people who do not readily understand ASMR, the community, or maybe just existing people in the ASMR community who would like a possible idea of what’s going on other than “tingles”.
The term "autonomous sensory meridian response" (ASMR) is a neologism for a purported biological phenomenon, characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation often felt in the head, scalp or peripheral regions of the body in response to various visual, auditory, olfactory and cognitive stimuli. The phenomenon was first noted through Internet culture such as blogs and online videos. Tom Stafford, a professor at the University of Sheffield, says "It might well be a real thing, but it's inherently difficult to research."
As with anything of an experiential nature, ASMR seems inherently impossible to pinpoint in a proper research setting. However, what we do actually know of it may provide enough to form a better understanding other than “tingles”, or at least lead us to a plausible explanation to work from.
For instance, the “tingling” sensation itself is noted as in the head, scalp, or peripheral regions of the body, and that right there is enough to pinpoint a mental state candidate in conjunction with the total relaxation state which accompanies ASMR.
As the name of the post implies, our search begins with the Alpha wave state of mind.
Alpha waves are neural oscillations in the frequency range of 8–12 Hz arising from synchronous and coherent (in phase or constructive) electrical activity of thalamic pacemaker cells in humans. They are also called Berger's wave in memory of the founder of EEG.
Alpha waves are one type of brain waves detected either by electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) and predominantly originate from the occipital lobe during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Alpha waves are reduced with open eyes, drowsiness and sleep. Historically, they were thought to represent the activity of the visual cortex in an idle state. More recent papers have argued that they inhibit areas of the cortex not in use, or alternatively that they play an active role in network coordination and communication. Occipital alpha waves during periods of eyes closed are the strongest EEG brain signals.
Of course, a lot of the ASMR community thrives on the visual triggers in video, so the alpha wave state should be diminished with open eyes. However, I’d like to put forth the theory that since the ASMR community usually concentrates on repetitive and mundane actions (pages turning, drawing, brushing hair, nail tapping, scratching, etc) that the redundancy of the visual cues in conjunction with what is known as Selective Attention does not disturb the alpha state nearly enough to counteract the effectiveness.
In essence, the visual cues aren’t chaotic enough to negate the alpha state trance and in fact actually aid in getting there faster by pinpointing a repetitive task with hyper-focus and then mentally omitting everything except non-predictable actions. But since non-predictable actions are miniscule in that scenario, the mind may as well be totally blind. In the same manner as a teacher droning on in class will shut you down (see also: Ferris Beuller), ASMR holds the same pattern triggers.
Another way to understand this is in the context of a hypnotherapist putting somebody in a trance. A lot of soft spoken and guided visualization occurs in this scenario, sometimes they use a repetitive visual cue (watch the pocket watch swing back and forth). This also would explain why not everyone is able to experience ASMR – since in the same aspect not everyone is able to be brought under hypnosis.
Given the alpha wave's connection with relaxed mental states, many people have latched onto the idea of utilizing this state through a technique called biofeedback training. This technique utilizes EEG to indicate to a subject or trainer when the subject is in an alpha wave state, which the subject is then instructed to remain in.
There are several different prospects of this training that are currently being explored. Arguably, the most popular one is the use of this training in meditation. Zen-trained meditation masters produce noticeably more alpha waves during meditation. This fact has led to a popular trend of biofeedback training programs for everyday stress relief.
Psychologists are hoping to use this technique to help people overcome phobias, calm down hyperactive children, and help children with stuttering problems to relax enough to practice regular speech.
However, the same things that would put somebody under a hypnotic state (trance) would also merely act as a deep form of relaxation for somebody who isn’t receptive. Therein is why so many people buy sleep machines to put by their bedside (the ones that play white noise, pink noise and ocean sounds).
Now we’re in the ballpark of what’s going on with ASMR.
In regard to the visual cortex, when you are visually subjected to repetitive tasks, you (at some point) stop mentally processing the scene since it is repeating and no new information (or relevant information) is being shown. This leaves you to focus just on the trigger sounds and visuals in a state of trance where you may still be seeing the scene but not fully acknowledging it visually. This would be equivalent to when you are “half asleep”… very relaxed, and yes you see what’s going on around you but it’s not fully registering in your mind.
In a way, you become situationally unaware and your subconscious tilts in favor as your conscious mind begins to drift or hyper-focus. Have you ever seen the video where they ask you to count how many times various players pass a basketball to each other, and in the end they slow it down and show you that you didn’t even notice the Gorilla walking into view and dancing?
The term for this is Selective Attention, or the ability to focus on one thing while omitting all other things in your field of view or senses. For instance, when your are in a crowded room and hear somebody call out your name – you are able to tune out the rest of the audio “noise” around you to hear that. In the same manner, when you use selective attention in your visual sense, you visually tune out most things around you as if you are blind to it.
Let’s do a quick Selective Attention test:
In the same manner as you visually omit things in your field of view via selective attention, ASMR redundancy has you omit nearly everything at a certain point because it is redundant and you are expecting the outcome. You seem to overextend the predictive ability of your mind and then lull into a state of autopilot. In this manner, the effectiveness of Alpha Wave state isn’t diminished with your eyes open because your Selective Attention is effectively blinding you, and when the visual cues are repetitive and mundane, your selective attention ability even omits that from your processing. Just like the swinging pocket watch.
Thus, you may as well be embodying the term “Eyes Wide Shut”.
This is just the first phase of ASMR triggering, reducing the person to an alpha wave state, which then makes them susceptible to the “tingles” aspect… but then that’s another wave-state which we’ll get into next.
Mu waves, also known as mu rhythms, comb or wicket rhythms, arciform rhythms, or sensorimotor rhythms, are synchronized patterns of electrical activity involving large numbers of neurons, probably of the pyramidal type, in the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement. These patterns as measured by electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), or electrocorticography (ECoG) repeat at a frequency of 8–13 Hz and are most prominent when the body is physically at rest.
Unlike the alpha wave, which occurs at a similar frequency over the resting visual cortex at the back of the scalp, the mu wave is found over the motor cortex, in a band approximately from ear to ear. A person suppresses mu wave patterns when he or she performs a motor action or, with practice, when he or she visualizes performing a motor action. This suppression is called desynchronization of the wave because EEG wave forms are caused by large numbers of neurons firing in synchrony. The mu wave is even suppressed when one observes another person performing a motor action.
This is where it gets interesting.
“Unlike the alpha wave, which occurs at a similar frequency over the resting visual cortex at the back of the scalp, the mu wave is found over the motor cortex, in a band approximately from ear to ear.”
We’re in the right neighborhood of the EEG waves at this point, but where Alpha Waves would be diminished from visual stimuli, Mu Rhythms are diminished through motor action or proprioception. On their own, they have weaknesses which can diminish their effectiveness, but what I am gathering is that Alpha waves and Mu waves are at a similar frequency range. More specifically, Alpha waves occur between 8 – 12 Hz and Mu waves between 8 -13 Hz.
The difference is a top end of 1 Hz range differentiation, while the rest of the range overlaps between the two.
I believe that the ASMR effect has something to do with the overlap of Alpha and Mu as you still hold consciousness (mostly). I suppose what’s going on is that you’re moving back and forth between Alpha and Mu and the trance like state it produces allows the effect of Mu Rhythms while affording the Alpha functionality by rapidly entering and leaving that 1 Hz range and staying mostly in the overlap phase of Alpha and Mu simultaneously.
Because Mu would be diminished with motor action (movement) or proprioception of movement (seeing others move or putting yourself in the position of the camera viewpoint) you would think that ASMR wouldn’t be possible in much the same manner as Alpha would be diminished with your eyes open. I believe it’s the specific combination of presentation which overrides the diminishing factors, and (in a way) utilize each other to strengthen the effectiveness and compensate.
For instance, if the Alpha state is normally diminished with your eyes open – that would imply cutting off visual stimulus would be required for full effect. However, if the visual stimulus is repetitive or of no inherent significance (tapping nails, turning pages, etc) then you aren’t really thinking about the visual stimulus or processing it… the lights are on but nobody is home. I suppose a good analogy is again in a long winded and monotone lecture where you’re staring at the blackboard. At some point, you just blank out. Your mind says “this isn’t important enough to pay attention or remember” and so you see it but it doesn’t really register.
In effect, your eyes may as well be shut.
This explains why the visual portion of ASMR is actually more effective at reaching an Alpha state instead of sabotaging it.
Then we reach a point where Mu Rhythms kick in, which are like the relaxation overdrive mode. Again, watching somebody move around would diminish the Mu wave effect, but if your visual cortex and mind aren’t actively registering the scene (lights on, nobody home), then the repetitive tasks being shown would have little to no effect on the Mu wave state. As for the personal being of the observer, you’re already sitting still, likely in a quiet room (interference deprivation), and barely moving – such as sitting quietly in a comfortable chair, or laying down listening on an MP3 player.
Your personal mobility at that point is negligible as you drift into a combination alpha/mu state of relaxation.
As a result, maybe ASMR should better be known as:
Alpha State Mu Rhythm
Prolonged exposure to this complimentary dual-state could produce that “tingling” sensation, and so it is a symptom of isolated neurological dual-wave synchronicity. Much in the same manner as your leg falls asleep and you get pins and needles, your mind inherently is using maybe one small portion excessively and in synchronicity of wave state while everything else is in suspended animation or subconscious autopilot.
In a way, ASMR as defined by Alpha State Mu Rhythm exhibits many of the symptoms and procedures as hypnotic trance, but not in a manner that specifically looks to shut off the conscious side entirely to leave only sub-conscious state. As a result, ASMR may in fact be better described as a synchronistic super-state in a complimentary dual-wave neurological function.
Over time, one could become accustomed to the triggers and lose sensitivity to them (as is reported often). A possible cause of this is that the triggers are no longer unique enough to hold the mental attention and you subconsciously tune them out from over-exposure. The premise is that Selective Attention should be tuning everything except the triggers out but when you overexpose, you end up conditioning your mind to include those triggers in the pattern recognition for the blind spot.
Of course, the simple solution for this is to abstain from ASMR triggers for a time in order to essentially reset the desensitization.
So what about the tingling sensation on the top of the head, back of the head, and other parts of the body for those who experience ASMR?
I believe that can also be explained -
Let’s take a look at the locations for the Visual and Motor Cortex:
As you can see, they are located right where you would expect to hear the most common reports of “pleasurable tingling” on the head and scalp associated with ASMR. As for the Audio Cortex, it’s roughly on either side of where the Motor Cortex area ends at each ear. Three areas of input, subdued into an alpha/mu synchronicity dual-state.
In terms of meditation and holistic beliefs, this could also explain the sensation for meditation and a “higher plane of being”… that “one with the universe” sort of thinking. While not exactly one with the universe, the person would be in a state of mind where chaotic consciousness would cease and a much deeper relaxation would occur. Maybe inner peace…
I suppose this is why ASMR is often used to help insomnia, anxiety, and stress – while the bio-feedback aspect of Alpha State could be considered to help relax people with phobias or autism…
As a supplementary, I’d like to add that Binaural audio is best for ASMR as it (in theory) offers the Cetera Algorithm whereby the space between your ears and difference in arrival time for audio to each ear allows your mind to spatially position the sound location in real time. In short – it sounds like you’re actually there. Of course, this all depends on the quality of the microphones (Left and Right) as well as the binaural setup.
Personally, I have a Stereo/Binaural microphone on my HD Webcam, but I also know it won’t produce true Binaural output since it’s not in a simulated dummy head or placed in my ears. However, that being said, I know it’s definitely an improvement over Monaural recording.
I’ve seen a number of ASMR videos that have lower quality audio, and even in some cases where they are using a binaural microphone, it’s not set up correctly or it is recording at a poor quality as to negate the spatial effect of the audio. On the flip-side, I’ve also seen/heard videos where they do a superb job with audio clarity in binaural (and make use of the fact that left and right are separate). For instance, maybe they lean in close to one ear while whispering, or make it a point to walk around the microphone to create spatial awareness.
My curiosity lies in the question of what would happen if somebody in the ASMR community got ahold of a Neumann USA KU 100 Binaural dummy head microphone system for recording their videos? Sure it’s nearly $8,000 for that setup, but you would think a video production studio looking to capitalize on ASMR properly would make that investment to professionally produce a total library at the absolute highest quality.
Could you imagine the ASMR Roleplay scenarios that could be done with this microphone setup and a high quality video production? Millions of people around the world would be in a tingling coma…
Pretty much everything in block quotes comes from Wikipedia. I’m not entirely against using Wikipedia for a source, as long as there is constructive (and original) material to go with it, and Wikipedia isn’t the entire premise. Listed below are the in-depth sources so you can look into it when you find time.
Additional Media Coverage:
Maine Public Broadcasting |