Are you a tinglehead? The weird world of ASMR

Does listening to a whisper send a tingle through your scalp? Do you find watching the snip of scissors around your ears at the hair salon soothing?

How about the sound of nails clicking softy, the swish or tap of a paintbrush on canvas, or the crinkle of foil as you unwrap a candy bar?

If these sounds and images give your brain a sparkly, effervescent feeling that relaxes you, then you are a tinglehead — one of the estimated 20% of people that some experts say experience autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR.

Is it a real or imagined sensation? There’s very little research on the phenomenon, so no one really knows. But legions of fans swear by ASMR, saying the actions in the videos foster a soothing meditative state that reduces anxiety and lulls them to sleep.

Some people go so far as to call ASMR tingles — which can cascade down the neck and shoulders and throughout the body — “brain-gasms.”

“ASMR is often described by those who experience it as ‘sparkling’ or ‘staticky,’ but tingles can vary for people,” said Craig Richard, founder of ASMR University, a website dedicated to understanding and researching the strange sensation.

“For me it is like my brain goes fuzzy, and I get this slight tingle,” said Richard, a self-proclaimed tinglehead and professor of biopharmaceutical science at Shenandoah University in Virginia.

Could it feel like goosebumps?

“No, not goosebumps. You can see and feel goosebumps on the surface of your skin. This is a deeper feeling,” Richard explained.

In addition to his own perceptions, Richard’s insight into this unusual phenomenon comes from a survey on ASMR he hosts on his website, where tingleheads share what triggers their shivery feelings. The majority of those who report experiencing ASMR are female, call themselves artistic or creative, and live all around the world, he said.

“ASMR is a global experience,” Richard said. “From what I see from my website, it is experienced in over 100 different countries, which supports the theory this is something biological rather than cultural.”

Gazillions of tingleheads

Whatever it is, ASMR has taken YouTube by storm. Since the first video about tingles hit the internet in 2013, eager fans have fueled the growth of millions of ASMR clips featuring soft whispers and calming, repetitive motions.

One video, which has over 13 million views, features beautifully manicured nails stroking or tapping objects next to a microphone. Other sounds said to trigger tingling are people eating crunchy foods like pickles, paper tearing, water dripping, hair brushing, humming, chewing, buzzing and purring.

One top ASMR YouTube provider has over 2.5 million subscribers to her whispering channel and over 38 million views of her 2017 hit, “ASMR 20 Triggers to Help You Sleep.”

If you’re a fan of something louder, this YouTube star and his friends are happy to chomp, crunch and loudly chew crispy fried chicken and sweet, sticky honeycombs for your listening pleasure — or maybe you’d prefer hash browns and burgers?

Advertisers have taken notice. Actor Zoe Kravitz starred in the first ever Super Bowl ASMR commercial this year. Reese’s peanut butter cups created a film that’s more than an hour long, featuring five people whispering while unwrapping candies.

McDonald’s has an ad of a young girl crunching her way through chicken nuggets and slurping a flurry. KFC’s UK YouTube channel has also gotten into the ASMR vibe, with a soothing British voice comparing raindrops to frying chicken.

Behind the tingle

Research on ASMR is in the early stages. Richard has done one of the few scientific studies on the topic, using functional MRIs to study reactions in the brains of people who have self-identified as tingleheads.

He said the part of the brain that lit up during a sparkly episode was the reward center. That’s where the feel-good hormone oxytocin, also known as the “love or trust hormone,” is produced. It’s the same part of the brain that becomes addicted to drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

“Which could explain why people can stare at these videos of tapping and crunching for an hour or more at a time,” Richard said.

University of Winnipeg professor of psychology Stephen Smith has also studied the personalities of people with ASMR, finding them to score high in curiosity and neuroticism, and lower in conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness.

“People with ASMR score high on the personality trait ‘openness to experience.’ I think they’re more receptive to specific types of physical, auditory and visual experiences than the rest of us,” Smith said.

ASMR falls into the same sensory category as synesthesia, Smith said, where senses commingle and people taste shapes, see sounds in color, feel music as a touch on the back of the neck, or see letters and numbers displayed in color.

While reports of synesthesia go back centuries, science has only recently been able to measure brain activity to prove its existence. Today, researchers believe some types of synesthesia may be genetic. The condition typically appears in childhood, and many people enjoy the extra sensory input the body receives.

Smith also put self-proclaimed tingleheads into functional MRI scanners to see how their brains were wired during a resting state. He found “unusual patterns of connections” in areas of the brain related to attention and sensation, “and in some cases, the brain areas that were part of one network appeared in different networks instead, suggesting there was some sort of cross wiring involved.”

In another study, Smith used electroencephalograms, or EEG machines, to measure the activity of groups of neurons in the brains of people who say they experience ASMR. Smith found that when people first began to experience tingles, there was a sudden surge in alpha waves, which indicate a state of wakeful rest.

“Alpha waves are associated with meditative types of experiences,” Smith said. “This suggests that what people describe as ASMR is fairly similar to a relaxing meditative experience.”

A feeling of connection

Richard believes it’s the calming effect of ASMR that brings tingleheads back again and again. People love the deep sense of relaxation they feel after an ASMR practitioner has spoken in a caring, soothing manner, he said.

“It’s very similar to the feeling of sitting down on a couch with a loved one you feel safe with, and when you feel safe with someone, you relax,” Richard said. “It’s also very similar to the way we talk to an infant to calm them: ‘Hey, it’s OK. I’m here for you. You’re safe. I care about you.’ These are universal behaviors of how to calm someone.”

Unlike sitting next to a loved one on a couch, ASMR doesn’t have to happen in person. Many ASMR YouTubers brush or clip hair directly into the camera — giving the impression that it is the viewer who is being groomed, slowly and with gentle purpose. One video, which has over 9 millions views, features a woman putting on “your” makeup.

“I find this all very off-putting,” Smith said. “I can’t watch the videos because there’s a voyeuristic quality that makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m trespassing in some way.”

Those who do respond to the videos are attracted to the “positive personal attention,” Richard explains. “It’s the person in the camera looking into the lens and acting in this super caring way like they known you their whole lives and care about you.”

However therapeutic ASMR may appear to be, Smith hastens to point out that any use of ASMR would not replace professional counseling for anxiety or stress any more than a stroll in nature would.

“It’s good for your blood pressure to go for a walk and relax. ASMR is the same,” he said. “If someone wants to use it therapeutically, it would be more as a supplement to help them relax, as opposed to their main treatment.”

A primitive beginning?

Why would such attention be so enticing? Richard believes in an evolutionary explanation. He said we can trace the need back to the Stone Age, where developing trust may have come from chimplike grooming behavior — “removing some parasites, getting some twigs out of your hair, or whatever” — and slow, purposeful actions that would benefit us in some way.

“If someone in a cave was handling something for a long time, he or she was probably preparing food, creating clothing or making a helpful tool,” Richard said.

Of course, not every caveman and woman responded positively. Somewhere along the way, a few must have responded with irritation, even anger, to the same stimuli. Today, that reaction is called misophonia, which experts believe can affect up to 20% of the population.

“It’s an extremely negative reaction, such as annoyance or disgust, mostly to specific sounds such as chewing, clicking, tapping and whispering,” Richard said, adding these are some of the most common triggers for the pleasurable aspects of ASMR as well.

“There is a tendency for people who experience synesthesia and misophonia to also experience ASMR, so there is some overlap here,” Smith said. “It’s just for some people, they experience it as pleasurable and for others, they experience it as extremely aversive and gross.”

Despite the lack of in-depth research on ASMR, Richard believes people should not carelessly dismiss the phenomenon, or the benefits it provides to those who experience it.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox along with mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing or cognitive behavioral therapy,” Richard said. “It’s another aspect of self-care that’s helping people deal with their stress.”

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