Students are no stranger to the many ways of coping with stress and sleep deprivation. There’s exercise, meditation, social interaction and so forth. But, if you’re finding these no longer work for you, you may want to try the latest online fad called ASMR.

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response and was coined in 2010 to describe the static-like tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins in the head and moves down the neck to the back. The sensation is commonly triggered by specific acoustic and visual stimuli.

Watching videos that cause this sensation is a trend on YouTube. In fact, “ASMR” has more search interest this year than “terrorism” and “Donald Trump.”

“The only thing I can really compare it to is you’re really little and you’re laying down on your mom’s lap and your mom is playing with your hair,” says Dakota Bollen, who watches ASMR videos four to five times a week.

It may sound creepy, but many Calgarian students are saying that watching these videos helps tremendously with their sleeping patterns and easing stress.

Bollen first discovered ASMR through Instagram, “I kinda thought it was weird and then the more I got into it, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t that weird, it’s kinda soothing and relaxing.’”

This is the reaction most viewers have at first.

If you search up ASMR on YouTube, you’ll find over 10 million videos displaying different “triggers.” Most of which involve young women whispering into a microphone, tapping their fingers on various objects, giving a head massage, doodling and role playing as doctors.

Michelle Craik, a fourth year business student at MRU says she first stumbled across ASMR when she found a video of a man pulling cork off a cork tree on Reddit.

“The sound was really soothing and in the comments someone was like ‘Oh, that’s ASMR.’ And I was like ‘What the hell is that?’ And it just started this rabbit hole,” she said.

Craik struggles with insomnia and she says watching ASMR videos have helped.

“It’s almost like a meditative or mindfulness state, cause you focus in on the auditory or the visual. Sometimes I’ll just turn my screen off and have my earbuds in and just fall asleep to that. It really helps with just shutting my mind off at the end of the day.”

Massage ASMR is one of the few male “asmrtists” and has over five hundred thousand subscribers. Photo courtesy of YouTube.

Brody Anderson, a culinary student at SAIT who’s been watching for nearly four years says he no longer feels the tingles, but continues to watch regardless.

 “It was very addicting, something very soothing about it, so now I have to listen to it every night.”

Anderson argues that people shouldn’t be weirded out by ASMR, since the “tingling” sensation is no different than someone who simply enjoys the sound of rain.

The ASMR phenomenon has spread rapidly across YouTube, as seen by the thousands, often millions of views per video. However, despite the massive online following, there’s almost zero research to explain the “tingling” sensation so many individuals claim to feel.

Adrienne Benediktsson, a biology professor at Mount Royal University, says it all comes down to the human’s ability to visualize. Although the viewer isn’t actually having their head massaged or sitting next to someone doodling, the brain is eliciting the same response while watching these videos as if they were.

Benediktsson says this is likely because of our “Grandmother cell.” In the 1960s, a neuroscientist named Jerry Lettvin suggested that people have neurons that respond to a single concept such as their grandmother. This theory of hyper-specific neurons was quickly rejected by the science community for being too simplistic.

However, in 2005, Rodrigo Quiroga, at the University of Leicester, UK, led a new study that may have proved Lettvin’s theory.

Quiroga’s team had access to eight individuals who were currently undergoing treatment for epilepsy and they inserted 100 tiny electrodes into each of their brains. They then showed them a series of images of famous people, places, and food, and measured the level of electricity or “firing” of the neurons connected to each electrode.

They began to notice a pattern for certain images. For example, one woman was shown seven images of Jennifer Aniston amongst 80 other images of animals, buildings, and other famous people. The neuron fired consistently every time Jennifer Aniston was viewed and almost completely ignored every other image. The neuron also fired when shown an image of Lisa Kudrow.

They tested this further and found with another participant that they had a similar reaction to a picture of  Halle Berry. It not only fired at the image of Halle Berry, but also at an image of just the words “Halle Berry.” This proved that the brain wasn’t just recognizing the image of these celebrities, it was recognizing the abstract concept of them.

Benediktsson says this may be exactly what’s happening when someone watches an ASMR video: a certain neuron that would normally be triggered when someone is having their head massaged at a hair salon is also being triggered when they watch a video of the same thing, creating the same pleasure.

Craik explains that the “tingling” sensation is similar to the feeling she’d get as a young girl when her friends would tap her head with their fist and drag their fingers down her back, imitating an egg being cracked.

Benediktsson says even if substantial research was to be done, it would be very difficult to study ASMR since the “tingling” sensation is so subjective. Some of the ideal methods such as an MRI scanner might not even be sensitive enough to pick up such subtle brain changes.

She joked, “Ideally we would crack open a skull, stick some electrodes in and expose different people and see what happens that way, but there’s this whole thing with ethics.”

While there may not be hard evidence of what is occurring in an individual’s brain while they watch ASMR videos, there’s no disputing that it is eliciting a response from a large number of people. Now, it’s just up to you to decide if it’s worth having someone whisper into your ear through a screen in order to fall asleep.

 cingram@cjournal.ca

Editor: Ashley King | aking@cjournal.ca