ASMR: The sound that massages your brain

11:37 PM, May 6, 2013   |    comments
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In some, it causes a tingling sensation that starts in the scalp and travels down the body. Others claim it lowers blood pressure, eases anxiety and can even induce sleep. 

The interface is YouTube where a growing number of "whisperers" softly talk the viewer through a role play situation featuring "triggers".   The videos can show hands organizing a jewelry box, a virtual doctor visit or spa treatment.  The voices are soft and whispery.  The triggers can be the sound of the voices or other sounds like tapping, scratching, paper rustling or brush stokes on canvas. 

The users of whisper videos even created a pseudo-scientific name for the phenomenon: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

MORE: Whisper videos and brain tingles

"I had the personal experience of getting this sensation", said Drew, an ASMRtist, or whisperer. "It's kind of like a tingling sensation that starts in your scalp.  It might travel down your spine, sometimes it might travel out through your limbs. It's similar to the sensation of chills." 

Drew, an undergraduate in psychology with experience in a clinical setting, says he makes the videos because he's interested in all kinds of therapy.

"A lot of people will write me personal messages and say that I've helped them get off their medication for anxiety or insomnia," he said.

While there is no scientific proof of ASMR, it is starting to get some attention in the world of academia.  Yale professor of neurology, Steven Novella, recently blogged about ASMR and didn't dismiss the idea of its existence.

"Is it real? In this case, I don't think there is a definitive answer, but I am inclined to believe that it is,", wrote Novella. "There are a number of people who seem to have independently (that is always the key, but it is a recent-enough phenomenon that this appears to be true) experienced and described the same syndrome with some fairly specific details. In this way it's similar to migraine headaches - we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history."

Ilse is an AMSRtist from the Netherlands who boasts 43,000 subscribers to her WaterWhispers channel.  She now whispers fulltime and is able to make a living through her three YouTube channels and a website dedicated to ASMR.

"It changed my life completely," said Ilse. "A lot of people use it for relaxation, just to wind down from a stressful day at work. You have different people from different countries around the globe with different professions that listen to my videos and can actually induce relaxation."

Sleep experts, though, say whisper videos may not be the best way for you to get quality sleep.  Dr. Amer Khan, a sleep specialist with the Sutter Neuroscience Institute, says using ASMR videos is a lot like using a white noise machine or a softly tuned television.  It can become a crutch.

"There is a problem. It's called a sleep association," said Khan. "Like a baby who has to have a pacifier in the mouth to fall asleep."

Khan prefers meditation and says for the best quality sleep, people need to learn to self-soothe and let go of the day.

"Sleep requires letting go of things," he said. "You can't sleep if you can't let go of what happened today."

The growth of the whisper videos subculture on the Internet can be tracked quite easily through Google search analytics which show a slow increase in the search for whisper videos in 2011 and a spike in 2012. 

While there is no scientific research currently on ASMR, there is plenty of curiosity.  A Canadian filmmaker is working on a documentary about ASMR called, "Braingasms" and the phenomenon has been profiled on NPR. 

While neurologists discuss the best ways to measure the phenomenon (MRI is the most popular suggestion), those who make the videos say they will continue helping those who are relaxed by the soft whispers and sounds they upload each week. 

ASMRtists like Ally say the proof comes in the comments they receive from viewers.

"One of the most moving comments I had was from a man who had just come home from a tour in Afghanistan, " said Ally. "He was struggling with PTSD and told me he couldn't get to sleep without watching one of my videos.  They were getting him into a relaxed state where he could quiet his mind enough to find peace and rest". 


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