When Art Leads Science: Academia Studies ASMR

Woman hands with perfect manicure and all kinds of tools ASMR triggers.

The first time watching an ASMR video is a little…confusing, for most people. 

Someone whispering unintelligibly into a microphone, a close-up shot of tapping long nails on different surfaces, like a cork coaster or an acrylic sheet. The creators in the videos often pretend they’re having a conversation directly with the viewer, responding to unspoken answers, carrying on as though it was a real time conversation. All this makes perfect sense in the context of an ASMR video.

Here, we’ll unpack what ASMR is, a bit about its history, and how it has become a favorite content genre among mass audiences. Perhaps most interestingly, we’ll get into why this internet sensation may turn out to be a case of art leading scientific research in real time.

What is ASMR?

In the context of the creator economy, ASMR is video content meant to trigger a relaxing, tingling sensation. According to ASMR viewers and fans, the physical phenomenon starts from the crown of the head and moves downward through the spine and neck. The tingly response is reputedly calming and even mildly euphoric, which is why fans often watch ASMR videos as a way to destress or drift off to sleep. 

What Does ASMR Stand For?

ASMR is an abbreviation that stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. It was named by participants in online forums about the then-amorphous concept.  It describes the desired outcome — the tingly sensation reflexively caused by certain stimuli (known as triggers) — the pursuit of which is what defines the AMSR genre.

ASMR Content Creation and Editing Styles

Creators of ASMR video content, or AMSRtists, as they are often called, are at their core sound engineers. They explore various materials for their acoustic properties including vibrations, friction, and densities. There’s a lot of overlap in what ASMRtists and sound effects producers do for film, though they differ in their ultimate objectives.

Because of the nature of their craft, ASMR creators, or AMSRtists, often invest into high quality microphones and audio recording equipment. An important aspect of this content style is capturing the texture within sound. High-definition audio equipment enables listeners to pick up on nuances they might not be able to hear without amplification. ASMR content creators often focus more on audio in the editing process as well, striving for clarity and reducing other forms of sound pollution for the final video cut. 

Another common construct of ASMR video composition is mood setting. That can range anywhere from a mostly empty room besides a table and with various objects to a full-on backdrop set, like a Victorian optometrist’s office

Interestingly, in addition to sound exploration, ASMRtists also play with the viewer’s focus and attention in an inviting, reassuring way. One common theme is for the ASMRtist to give gentle commands to keep the viewer’s attention more centered in low, calm tones (e.g., “follow my finger,” “one or two”).  

ASMRtists often ‘break the fourth wall’ and speak directly to viewers. It is not uncommon for them to have full conversations that mimic a two-way dialogue with the viewer, complete with direct eye contact, moving visual focal points, and responsive facial expressions. 

From a creative standpoint, ASMR is quite open ended and has even sprouted sub-genre categories. That includes theatrical, personal attention and care, eating (where Jellysmack creator partner Zach Choi, who boasts nearly 14 million followers on YouTube alone thrives), and mouth noises, among a host of other genre-specific niches.

The History and Rise of ASMR

ASMR first started gaining attention on the internet around 2010 when it became a point of discussion in online forums. The topic slowly gained steam between 2010–2017 as content meant to explore this not-well-understood experience (and exactly what triggers it) found more creators taking it up as a content style. 

In late 2017, the category had a huge surge in interest that climbed drastically throughout 2018 before peaking in Google searches in February of 2019. Though search volume has cooled off from its peaks, interest in ASMR has leveled out at an audience size that is millions larger than it was prior to the run up.

The 2018 ASMR interest spike had a ripple effect among academic researchers in the fields of psychology and medicine. Ever since, numerous research papers, surveys, and studies on the subject have been published in various scientific publications and journals with some very intriguing findings. 

Emerging Research Behind ASMR

Since its earliest days, there has been debate around whether there is any scientific basis to the quantitative anecdotal evidence surrounding ASMR. 

An emerging body of scientific research from universities across the world were compelled to look into it. The overall results of this research have been quite intriguing — and surprisingly consistent.

For example, a 2017 research study published by ​​Manchester Metropolitan University explored whether watching ASMR content produced measurable physiological effects that indicated reduced levels of stress. The study was very much inspired by the pique of the internet’s interest, which the researchers expressly identify as the impetus behind the study in their paper’s abstract. 

Our results are consistent with the idea that ASMR videos regulate emotion and may have therapeutic benefit for those that experience ASMR — by, for example, reducing heart rate and promoting feelings of positive affect and interpersonal connection.

Researchers from Oxford and Manchester Metropolitan University

Researchers surmised that watching ASMR content could measurably lower heart rate.

Some people out there might be wondering: Why don’t I experience ASMR tingles? Subsequent studies may have a clue on that front as well.

In short: Some people are affected more than others. A February 2022 study by Northumbria University found some preliminary supporting data suggesting that the degree to which viewers experiencing the ASMR sensation may be linked with their baseline levels of anxiety and neuroticism. In other words, those with higher levels of baseline anxiety were more likely to say they experienced the tingly sensation and calming effects of ASMR. Therefore, supporting anecdotal evidence, ASMR’s effect is stronger and more easily triggered for some than for others.  

There have been a handful of other studies and research papers on the topic published over the last three years as an increasing number of academic and medical professionals take an interest in ASMR. 

It is quite incredible then to think that AMSR content creators and fans are inspiring scientific research in the world of academia and clinical psychology. With more research and understanding, the abstract, shared sensation of ASMR may someday have therapeutic use cases.

ASMR and the Next Generation 

ASMR is a groundbreaking content genre in more ways than one, and it just might be a harbinger for what’s to come in the creator economy. 

ASMR has an especially engaged audience in Generation Z. Not only are the genre’s biggest creators from that cohort, they are also the genre’s biggest consumers — by a lot. 

According to Tubular Labs data, the 18–24 year age group was the largest audience segment for all five of the top ASMR channels, more than double the audience percentage relative to any other age group. ASMR content is already picking up steam in even younger audiences, ages 13–17, suggesting this genre is here to stay and likely has a promising future. 

The rise of ASMR reflects a shifting societal lens and relationship with technology. It’s one that is organic to the young adult audiences who have grown up in the Age of the iPhone and video streaming, and whose social experiences have always been intertwined with technology.

It also serves as a reminder that the internet is one of humanity’s greatest scientific experiments, where the flow of information and data is torrential, and the consolidation of information can sometimes lead to new ways of thinking.

And when it comes to ASMR, we might be witnessing a fascinating case of art leading the sciences.