ICYMI, Zoë Kravitz starred in Michelob Ultra’s Super Bowl commercial last night, the theme of which relied heavily on ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response.
Those unfamiliar with ASMR might have been a little unnerved at Kravitz’s whispers, serene smile and emphasis on the small sounds she was making -- tapping her nails against the glass beer bottle and honing in on the fizzing foam as she poured the drink. But the ad was actually channeling a very real phenomenon taking over the internet lately: ASMR has only just started to become popular despite being first defined in 2010, and I’m expecting a surge now that a trendy beer brand has taken note.
ASMR refers to a physical tingling sensation brought about by a certain auditory stimuli. Basically, if you’ve ever felt a warm sensitivity pass through your body in response to sounds like hair brushing, turned pages of a book or even Bob Ross’s voice (that’s actually a big one), you’ve experienced ASMR. People report a head rush that can extend down the spine and throughout their limbs, and the sense has even been called a “brain-gasm,” though it’s important to note that ASMR is not meant to be sexual in nature.
It’s been compared to synesthesia, or the mixing of senses (synesthesists report sensory experiences like hearing colors and tasting sounds). In this case, an audio stimulus turns into a physical reaction.
The different stimuli are called “triggers” in ASMR world, and make up a long laundry list of things we find an odd sense of pleasure listening to. Since its discovery (if we can call it that -- not much research has been done on the subject), countless videos have cropped up on YouTube -- hour-long videos sometimes -- of “ASMRists,” as they call themselves, whispering into microphones and tapping their nails against various surfaces. They're attempting to invoke the ASMR tingles in their viewers, sometimes basing each video around a different form of trigger.
Examples of triggers include:
- Rubbing velcro
- Drumming nails against something
- Turning book pages
- White noise
- A breathy voice
- Pencil on paper
- Opening a zipper
- Brushing hair
Are you tingling yet?
Two types of ASMR reactions have been determined: Type A can reproduce the sensation simply by meditating or thinking about a trigger, while Type B has to actually experience it. Triggers, though, differ for anyone, and at times can even have a reverse effect. For example, someone may loathe the sound of zippers opening and closing (probably a result of misophonia) while it puts others to sleep -- insomnia being one of the main reasons ASMRists have such a fanbase.
And it’s not just insomniacs the practice eases. ASMR has been linked to battle depression and anxiety and reduce stress; it’s even soothed chronic pain).
Which makes sense: A common theme among ASMR videos is a sense of proximity and caretaking; even though the ASMRist isn’t in the room with you, the emphasis is on feeling like they are to produce a calm, soothing effect, in turn making that tingling, serene feeling that much more attainable and powerful.
But since ASMR hasn’t quite become as mainstream as it definitely will after Michelob’s ad during Super Bowl LIII, there’s still quite a bit of research to be done. At first glance, the exact biological or physiological cues to ASMR haven’t been fleshed out yet, according to Professor of biopharmaceutical sciences Craig Richard, who runs the ASMR University blog.
What’s next for ASMR? More research in order to determine exactly what its health benefits are, if there are any. As of 2017, researchers have begun testing to see if there’s a neurological difference between those who experience ASMR and those who don’t. For example, since misophonia has genetic links, it stands to reason that ASMR does as well.
What Richard and other researchers have found so far, though, is the theory that ASMR experiences come from a “womb-like intimacy,” or a person’s experience with feeling loved.
“When a newborn is born, the sensation that is the most developed and they receive the most information through is touch, and the one that’s least developed is sight,” Richard said to Smithsonian Magazine. In that frame of thought, ASMR is mimicking a childlike appreciation for touch. “It’s pattern recognition. Our brains recognize the pattern of someone with a caring glance, someone with a gentle whisper, and we find that comforting.”
The newest venture with ASMR is bringing it live. Enough videos exist that ASMRists are toying with a type of therapeutic session of ASMR in the flesh, like Whisperlodge in New York. The “spa” promises a sensory experience led by a trained guide, meant to soothe and relax you much like a facial or massage would.
Considering the amount of viewers and listeners already reporting soothed anxiety from the videos, there’s a springboard potential for ASMR to have some substantiated medical benefits down the road. We're here for it.