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Hearing a bedtime story may still lull you to sleep, but it might help more if the reader whispers it. Or if they gently tap their foot, or just shuffle papers around for a few minutes. Confused? There's a growing subculture of insomnia- and anxiety-plagued people who find solace in these kinds of repetitive sounds, a relaxation phenomenon known as autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). (This magical GIF can also help reduce anxiety, stat.)
What is ASMR?
Not everyone feels it, but for those who do, ASMR is said to feel like a tingling sensation spreading over your head, typically moving down your spine and body, inducing total euphoria—so much so that the effect is often referred to as a brain orgasm (though devotees are quick to specify that the pleasurable sensation is distinctly non-sexual).
What does it do?
While scientific evidence is pretty scarce, the number of devotees is overwhelming: ASMR online groups and forums are flooded with stories of people suffering from unbearable and incurable anxiety or insomnia until they came across Bob Ross' soothing voice on late-night TV or heard pages gently turning in a library. (Related: Incredibly Odd Insomnia Cures People Actually Try)
"Anecdotally, people are also using ASMR videos to help with stress, depression, loneliness, and social anxiety," says Giulia Poerio, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Poerio recently published a study in PLoS One that found ASMR does, in fact, help people feel calmer, less stressed, and less sad. It even tangibly lowers their heart rates—all suggesting ASMR may have very real, therapeutic value. Meanwhile, previous research in PeerJ reports the sounds can help temporarily alleviate symptoms of depression and chronic pain for those who are tuned into the tingles.
Why do just some people feel it?
There's probably a neurological nuance for why certain people experience ASMR—a stronger neural connection between auditory and emotional areas, for example—and potentially some personality parameters. But from wha's currently known now, there's no real rhyme or reason for why some feel the tingles and others don't, says Poerio.
The ASMR Research & Support organization—which is trying to kick-start scientific research on the phenomenon—puts sensation seekers into two categories: Type A is relaxed by their own thoughts, like meditation. The more common Type B relies on something external to stimulate their euphoria, like listening to a pen scratch paper or a whispering voice (the latter is so common that ASMR is sometimes called whisper therapy).
The only way to know if you're a Type B: Cue up a video of someone brushing hair or lightly tapping a table and see what feelings ensue. (Think you're type A? Try this Headspace meditation for anxiety instead.)
Which sounds work?
"Sounds that trigger ASMR are always low volume and are usually steady, rhythmic, and predictable," says Craig Richard, Ph.D., founder of the site ASMR University and author of Brain Tingles. "Our brains interpret sounds with these traits as non-threatening, which can induce relaxation—especially when incorporated with personal attention and caring behaviors."
Harsh sounds—sirens, yelling—definitely won't fly. And even more pointed soft sounds—eating, lip-smacking, water dripping, scratching—aren't the most favored. What is: soft-speaking, whispering, hair brushing, and close personal attention (usually a combination of whispers and simulated acts like face massage or face brushing), says Poerio.
There's even a fine line between what will relax someone and help them fall asleep and what actually brings on the tingles. "White noise and nature sounds are very helpful for relaxation and sleep induction because they mask background sounds. ASMR-inducing sounds—gentle voices, soft crinkling, light tapping—can also do this, but they're even more relaxing," says Richard.
How can I try ASMR?
Thanks to the internet, sufferers can find relief with the oddest of soothers: YouTube boasts almost 15 million ASMR videos of people whispering, tapping, scratching, even role-playing situations like eye exams and haircuts (personalized attention is a common calmer).
Try out a few of the most popular ASMRists (as they're known) on YouTube, like Ilse of TheWaterWhispers, Maria of GentleWhispering, or Taylor of ASMR Darling. Each of these channels covers a range of triggers and, while some videos last upwards of 30 minutes, most ASMR enthusiasts report tingling after only a few minutes of concentrating on the sounds.
Richard also suggests ASMR podcasts, which can be helpful for falling asleep since it's the sounds without the screen. If you're a Spotify user, you can cue up anything from the ASMR genre, where there are playlists geared toward sleep or triggering the tingles. (Also try these sleep-inducing stretches.)
And, yes, there's such a thing as ASMR IRL: If you're in New York City and want a more immersive experience, check out the WhisperLodge, which provides the sounds and feelings IRL—kind of an ASMR massage.