Graphic: Bottle PR Agency
Source: ASMR University – Origin Theory of ASMR
Graphic: Jackie Hur
Sources: SmithsonianMag.com, ASMR University – Origin Theory of ASMR
What is the Origin Theory of ASMR?
Technically this is not a “theory” but a bunch of hypotheses that could be tested with properly controlled experiments.
It is a framework I originally posted on Aug 16, 2014, for testing and trying to understand the purpose and biology of ASMR. I propose specific molecules and reasons for how ASMR may initiate head tingles, relaxation, sleepiness, and elevated mood.
Why have I written an Origin Theory about ASMR?
For three major reasons:
1) to encourage current and new discussions about the purpose and biology of ASMR
2) to inspire others to become involved in researching the purpose and biology of ASMR
2) to offer some hypotheses that could be tested by researchers investigating the purpose and biology of ASMR
These hypotheses are not set in stone, they are constantly evolving due to the helpful feedback from others, and due to the addition of new ideas, new information, and new data.
What is ASMR?
I will begin with a short description of ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.
ASMR is a response that is commonly described as having a narrow range of specific sensations and feelings. Physical sensations include sparkly or static-y tingles or waves in the head which may flow to other areas of the body. Feelings include relaxation, comfort, calmness, sleepiness, peacefulness, happiness, and/or euphoria.
The stimuli for ASMR (often called “triggers”) mostly fall into three main categories.
- The first category is tactile stimuli and includes light touch, massage, hair touching, grooming, and physical examination.
- The second category is visual stimuli and includes eye gazing and observing slow hand movements.
- The third category is auditory stimuli and includes vocal types (eg soft, whispering, slow, gentle, increased pitch, caring, monotone), oral sounds (eg mouth sounds, chewing, blowing), and object-related sounds (eg tapping, scratching, cutting, crinkling, caressing, handling).
ASMR stimuli usually have one or more of the following traits: repetitive, methodical, steady pace, steady volume, and/or non-threatening.
The individuals that create these stimuli tend to have specific dispositions which include: kind, caring, empathic, attentive, focused, trustworthy, dedicated, and expert.
ASMR scenarios combine dispositions with multiple stimuli to result in strong ASMR reactions. ASMR scenarios include instructional demonstrations, methodical task completion, personal attention, and consultations. Specific examples include spa treatments, cranial nerve exams, hair salon visits, origami paper folding, unboxings, and soft-spoken men painting methodically on canvas.
What is the short summary of the Origin Theory of ASMR 2.o?
Triggers that stimulate ASMR in individuals may actually be activating the biological pathways of inter-personal bonding and affiliative behaviors. Examples of inter-personal bonding include parent and infant bonding, family member bonding, friendship bonding, and romantic partner bonding.
ASMR and bonding behaviors share similar triggers like gentle touches and soft voices between individuals that trust each other, and also have similar responses like feeling comforted, feeling relaxed, and feeling secure.
Some of the basic biologies of bonding are well established and this involves specific behaviors that stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These bonding behaviors and molecules may provide a good explanation for most of the triggers and responses associated with ASMR.
Is monkey-to-monkey grooming a type of bonding behavior?
Yes, and it closely matches the behaviors and responses related to ASMR. Here is a description from the Indiana Public Media:
“Grooming not only removes external parasites, it leads to tolerance, social support, mating advantage and bonding between individuals within a social group.
Grooming reduces tension by lowering the heart rate and releasing endorphins that are calming. It is used to reinforce male-female mate bonds as well as same-sex friendship bonds. For example, the length of time macaque and capuchin females groom each other depends on their social rank. Higher ranked females receive more grooming.
Chimpanzees often have bouts of allogrooming that go on for hours when reunited with old acquaintances. They also do it to calm emotions following aggressive outbursts by angry adult males.
Even though humans do not overtly practice allogrooming, we do appreciate going to the barbershop, beauty parlor or nail salon. Petting the family dog has been shown in experiments to reduce the blood pressure of humans.”
How exactly are ASMR triggers and behaviors similar to bonding triggers and behaviors?
The inter-personal bonding process is an important part of forming relationships all throughout one’s life, but it begins as the vital bonding process between parents and infants.
This bonding between parents and infants is important for the ability of parents to soothe, comfort, and relax infants. The same outcomes of being soothed, comforted, and relaxed also occurs with ASMR, whether the individual initiating the ASMR is doing it unintentionally or intentionally.
Examples of individuals who may unintentionally trigger ASMR in others include clinicians, hairdressers, and painters. Those individuals who are intentionally creating ASMR triggers are often referred to as ASMR artists.
Whether done unintentionally or intentionally, individuals who trigger ASMR in other individuals demonstrate most of the behavioral traits of bonding behavior used by parents to soothe, comfort, and relax infants.
Here is a comparison of parental behaviors and ASMR behaviors.
- Use of whispered or spoken words that are vocalized softly, slowly, and in a caring way:
- Parental behavior: use soft, gentle, caring vocals and whispers to soothe infants
- Unintentional ASMR: individuals tend to have calm, gentle, and soothing vocal tones
- Intentional ASMR: artists often use soft, gentle, caring vocals and especially whispers
- Use of light touch and soft caresses:
- Parental behavior: use light touch and soft caresses to soothe infants
- Unintentional ASMR: light touch may be involved, especially true for clinicians, hairdressers, and spa treatments
- Intentional ASMR: popular role-plays include clinicians, hairdressers, and spa treatments, and also ear caressing.
- Use of slow and methodical hand movements:
- Parental behavior: use their hands to distract, amuse, and soothe infants
- Unintentional ASMR: often true for clinicians, hairdressers, spa treatments, unboxings, and demonstrations
- Intentional ASMR: artists often use their hands to tap, scratch, unbox, unpackage, demonstrate, or just slowly move them.
- Involvement of focused care and attention on an individual:
- Parental behavior: usually give undivided attention when caring for an infant, and especially when soothing an infant
- Unintentional ASMR: clinicians, hairdressers, and other experts that trigger ASMR are usually very focused on the individual
- Intentional ASMR: most video artists are usually talking directly to and/or looking directly at the viewer
- Importance of trust between the individuals
- Parental behavior: the trust from the infant is greatest for the individuals that provide the most care and attention
- Unintentional ASMR: often received from individuals we trust like clinicians and anyone that is an expert at their job
- Intentional ASMR: the irony is that artists are strangers, but after viewing their videos there may be increased feelings of trust
- Use of eye-contact with expressions of compassion:
- Parental behavior: will show expressions of compassion and concern as they soothe infants
- Unintentional ASMR: not consistently present for unintentional ASMR but can enhance it when present
- Intentional ASMR: many gaze into the camera with expressions of compassion, concern, and empathy
- Similarities to gender and age:
- Parental behavior: young females of reproductive age tend to be the primary caregiver (but not always)
- Unintentional ASMR: does not seem to consistently rely on a specific age and/or gender, this reflects other bonding experiences
- Intentional ASMR: majority of artists are young females of reproductive age
Are the behaviors and triggers associated with ASMR also similar to other bonding behaviors?
Yes. These bonding and affiliative behaviors are extremely important for parent and infant bonding, and then continue to be involved in subsequent inter-personal bonding experiences like parent and child (rather than infant) bonding, bonding with other family members, bonding between close friends, and bonding between romantic partners.
All of these positive bonding experiences usually involve soft and caring vocal tones, gentle and appropriate touching, focused attention, a development of trust which helps to create and strengthen the bond, and eye contact that conveys honesty, closeness, and genuine emotion.
These bonding behaviors are not unique to humans, most other species also exhibit many of these behaviors. One of the best-known types of bonding and affiliative behavior seen in many species is known as “grooming”. This grooming behavior involves focused attention and light touches which often creates and/or strengthens the relationship between the two animals.
Can the biology of inter-personal bonding help to explain the biology of ASMR?
Yes. Studies have shown that endorphins are critically involved with parent-infant bonding. When an infant and a parent are brought close together, the brain of the infant immediately releases endorphin neurotransmitters. These endorphins will then bind and stimulate mu-opioid receptors. These receptors are the same ones that bind morphine and oxycodone. Stimulation of these receptors is best known for inhibiting pain while also stimulating pleasure, relaxation, and sedation. This immediate release of endorphins also occurs between other closely-bonded individuals like best friends and romantic partners, as well as, during grooming behaviors of other animals.
Endorphins are probably the primary cause of the tingles and slight euphoria of ASMR. The brain is receiving stimuli that it perceives as safe and trustworthy, like the soft voice of a clinician or the grooming touches of a hairdresser – and that causes the release of endorphins.
Endorphins also stimulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with desire and motivation. Dopamine helps you to recall, recognize, and focus on those things in your life that trigger endorphins, whether it is a yummy food, the comfort of a parent, your best friend, or a romantic partner. Dopamine is probably the primary molecule that reminds an individual which ASMR videos are best at triggering endorphins, and then keeps that individual focused and watching a seemingly uninteresting video for 30 minutes or more.
The relaxing sensation felt during ASMR is also partially due to the endorphins, and also due to oxytocin – another molecule that is central to bonding. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that is stimulated by endorphins. This molecule is sometimes called the “bonding hormone”, “moral molecule”, or the “love drug” because it has been shown to be so important to the close bonds formed between infants and parents, or between romantic partners. The increased levels of oxytocin between closely bonded individuals have been established in many other species. As oxytocin increases in the brain, there is a consistent response of increased contentment, increased trust, and decreased fear.
Oxytocin is likely to be the primary cause of the comfort, relaxation, and decreased stress of ASMR. Oxytocin also contributes to the tingles because oxytocin increases the sensitivity of endorphin receptors. Oxytocin and endorphins together are also very good at decreasing cortisol, a hormone released during chronic stress.
Oxytocin is also a strong stimulator of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This neurotransmitter is responsible for feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Almost all antidepressant drugs increase serotonin levels.
Serotonin is likely to be the primary cause of the elevated mood felt by some individuals after they experience ASMR. It is likely that dopamine is more dominant than serotonin during ASMR, but then serotonin becomes more dominant over serotonin after ASMR to be responsible for a continued feeling of satisfaction, calmness, and positive mood.
The role and importance of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin in bonding experiences are well established in humans and other species. It seems most likely therefore that if the triggers for bonding and ASMR are similar, then the biology behind the responses to those triggers is also similar.
So the positive attributes of ASMR could be attributed to the molecules central to bonding?
Yes. Below is a summary.
Endorphins: may be strongly responsible for the euphoria and tingles and partially responsible for the comfort, relaxation, and sleepiness.
Dopamine: may be strongly responsible for the desire to experience ASMR repeatedly and the focused attention while experiencing ASMR.
Oxytocin: may be strongly responsible for the comfort, relaxation, and decreased stress, while also contributing to the tingles by increasing the sensitivity of endorphin receptors.
Serotonin: may be strongly responsible for the feelings of satisfaction, calmness, and positive mood that continue after experiencing ASMR.
Is oxytocin central and critical to ASMR?
This is likely, but has not been determined yet.
You can learn more about the physiological effects of oxytocin, methods to measure oxytocin, and the potential therapeutic applications of oxytocin in these scientific review articles: Is Oxytocin ‘Nature’s Medicine‘? and Oxytocin and Stress-related Disorders: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Treatment Opportunities.
If dopamine is stimulated during ASMR, could ASMR be addictive?
There have not been any research studies or validated testimonies that demonstrate ASMR is clinically addictive. ASMR is highly enjoyable for many individuals, so they may use “I’m addicted” as a non-clinical term of enjoyment, rather than as a clinical term of harm.
In contrast to ASMR being potentially addictive, the ASMR community often reports the loss of ASMR due to over consumption of ASMR content. This results in a forced period of ASMR abstinence in order to regain the ASMR ability. This is often referred to as “ASMR immunity”, although, “ASMR tolerance” would be a more accurate description. The temporary loss of ASMR is the body telling the individual, “you have had enough.” This temporary loss of ASMR due to high consumption could be described as a safety feature against addiction.
Testimonials from individuals trying to kick addictions and suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms report that ASMR is helpful to them. The likely mechanism is that ASMR is helping them to destress and fall asleep more easily during their drug withdrawal period. These testimonials can be found here: Health Benefits of ASMR.
Additionally, if oxytocin is central to ASMR, then the potential role of oxytocin in addiction should also be considered. New research is demonstrating that oxytocin may be helpful for people trying to kick addictions, read more here: ‘The love hormone’ – a new treatment for addiction?
Could ASMR be helpful to some individuals diagnosed with insomnia, anxiety, or depression?
There is strong potential here. In oversimplified terms, insomnia is an inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep, anxiety is extreme stress, and depression is a deep sadness. All of these situations are clinical diagnoses because they somehow impair an individual’s health, occupation, or relationships.
The ability of ASMR to induce sleepiness, comfort, relaxation, decreased stress, and elevated mood holds great promise for individuals with these disorders. And sure enough, there are many online testimonials and published research studies of individuals reporting how ASMR has been helpful for their insomnia, anxiety, and/or depression.
Is ASMR actually beneficial for all of these medical disorders in a clinically significant way? This has not been scientifically established yet with clinical studies that compare ASMR with other current evidence-based treatments. The therapeutic effectiveness of ASMR by itself, or in conjunction with other medical therapies, will hopefully be revealed in the near future by appropriate medical research.
How do ASMR and the feelings associated with inter-personal bonding differ?
The euphoric and/or calming feeling someone may feel while being held by a parent as an infant, or while cuddling on the couch with a romantic partner as an adult is sometimes referred to as affection, love, and other terms. These feelings make sense because we are with someone who we trust, who we care for, and/or who we are bonded with. These feelings also make sense because these individuals are special to us and have clearly earned our trust and affection over time.
ASMR is somewhat different from this in two ways.
The first difference is that although similar molecules are being activated to result in a similar feeling of euphoria and/or relaxation, the triggers may not be from individuals that you have slowly developed a relationship with. The triggers may be from strangers. A hairdresser you just met, someone sitting next to you on a subway train, or even someone in a recorded video.
The other major difference is that you feel the activated molecules in your brain and body. You may not get tingles every time you hang out with your best friend even though you are still most likely releasing endorphins and the other molecules. Love and affection between family members, friends, or partners can be consistently present without consistent tingles. ASMR is specifically the moment at which you feel tingles. So yes, loved ones can also give you ASMR because ASMR is the moment at which those molecules are so specifically activated that you can feel them. In fact, it may be likely for some that their loved ones are the best at activating ASMR in them.
Are endorphins also released during orgasm?
Yes, but that does not mean ASMR is a sexual feeling or a sexual response. Endorphins are also released when you severely injure yourself, but that does not mean ASMR is an injury response. Endorphins are just used in various responses to stimulate pleasure and/or decrease pain.
ASMR is more similar to the phase immediately after orgasm called “resolution”. This phase involves muscle relaxation, feelings of well-being, increased desire for and enjoyment from light caressing, increased sleepiness, and an overall lack of sexual desire. This phase has been shown to be due to the continued activation of endorphin receptors, along with increasing stimulation by oxytocin and serotonin.
Why is ASMR stimulated by tappings, crinkles, and other curious sounds?
This is a good question. My best guess is that these sounds may represent sounds made by nearby loved ones. For example, as an infant, you probably were not held by a parent for every minute, but certain soft and repetitive sounds around you meant that a parent or other protective individual was near.
So soft and methodical sounds may activate the bonding pathways by giving comfort that a loved one is nearby. During our evolution these sounds would have included leaves rustling, small twigs crackling, sounds of chewing and breathing, scraping and tapping, or even the sounds of someone else nearby being groomed. These same types of sounds dominate most popular ASMR videos: rustling, crinkling, crackling, mouth sounds, scratching, tapping, and brushing.
ASMR sounds often tend to be non-threatening sounds. Loud and harsh sounds rarely stimulate ASMR in individuals. As long as these sounds are not abrupt, loud, or erratic then they may signal some primitive pathways in our brains that a trusted individual is near, bringing us a feeling of safety and comfort. If the response is very strong with brain tingles, then we call that ASMR.
Why can some individuals experience ASMR without any stimuli?
Think about your best friend or anyone that you are close to, these thoughts may bring you slight euphoria (endorphins), comfort (oxytocin), and/or happiness (serotonin).
And similarly, just thinking about an ASMR trigger may allow for the rise of these same molecules. Our brains perceive our “imaginations” as real stimuli. You can do something similar by imagining food. Thinking about your favorite food item may result in real physiological changes like salivation and increased stomach acid production.
Additional individuals have also reported feeling ASMR while meditating or self-commanding themselves to experience ASMR. Some individuals even report spontaneous and/or random moments of ASMR in which there does not appear to be a stimulus or a pattern to the stimuli.
Why do some people experience ASMR but others do not?
Another tough question. I believe that everyone (except for some very rare exceptions) produces endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. But the ability to feel those molecules in response to a “strange” stimulus may differ between individuals.
It may require that these molecules need to be produced to a certain amount to be felt. Think of a glass of water and a cup of sugar. If I put one grain of sugar in the glass of water you probably wouldn’t be able to taste it. If I slowly kept adding sugar then at some point you would be able to taste it. And that level of sugar to make the water “sweet” will vary between individuals. ASMR may work in a similar way. Some individuals may only feel euphoria and comfort by snuggling with a loved one (strong stimulus), but never feel it by watching a video (weaker stimulus). They have a different threshold for stimuli to trigger those feelings.
What exactly determines why someone may feel the “endorphin buzz” by watching a video in their brain while others do not? There is a variety of how much endorphin we produce and a variety to how sensitive our endorphin receptors are. So individuals that create high amounts of endorphins easily and/or have endorphin receptors that are very sensitive may be more likely to feel the euphoria from a small trigger. And this same concept of molecule production and receptor sensitivities applies to all the other molecules involved in bonding and ASMR. Some of these molecular and receptor traits could be passed on through genetics.
In addition to genetics, these molecules and receptors could be influenced by the environment, diet, disorders, toxins, drugs, and even childhood experiences and cultural norms.
Why do some individuals experience ASMR, but then suddenly stop experiencing ASMR to the same triggers?
Receptors are very good at becoming less sensitive over time in response to the same stimulus, this is especially true for endorphin receptors. This is why people who repeatedly use morphine or oxycodone (which bind to endorphin receptors) need more drug to get the same response over time.
This automatic desensitization aspect of endorphin receptors can actually make sense because of the central role of endorphin in bonding. If you received a pleasurable high as an infant for every moment that you snuggled with your parent, then you may never leave their side. You may never learn how to walk, never learn to forage for food on your own, and/or never venture out to start your own family.
You may also have felt the rise and fall of the euphoria associated with a romantic relationship. The production of endorphins and/or the sensitivity of the endorphin receptors change over time based on many internal and external stimuli. The feelings of affection may be strongest at the start of a relationship and then slowly decrease and plateau. The bonding molecules and their receptors are changing over time.
And so it may be for ASMR triggers. You may enjoy a specific video for a while because it is stimulating your endorphin receptors on a regular basis but over time you may become less sensitive to those triggers because your endorphin receptors have become less sensitive.
Why are there so many different triggers for ASMR?
Probably because there are so many different signals to indicate that the individuals you interact with are safe to be around. It may be the way they speak, the way they move, the way they touch you, and/or the way they look at you. Deciding whom to trust and whom to bond with is a simple objective-based on many signals.
A good metaphor is food. Your simple objective with food is to eat something nutritious and safe. But determining which foods are nutritious and safe is the result of many stimuli: touch, taste, sight, and smell. As a result, there is a large variety to what people like because people have evolved, have been cultured, and/or have been conditioned to perceive these signals differently.
So as we all have our favorite foods and foods we dislike, we all may also have our favorite ASMR triggers and ASMR triggers we dislike.
Why do some people have such a strong and negative reaction to some common ASMR triggers?
Some individuals have a strong negative reaction to the sound of whispering, chewing sounds, mouth sounds, plastic crinkling, tapping, and other popular ASMR triggers. This type of negative reaction to a sound is called misophonia.
Misophonia to ASMR triggers is reported by those who do experience ASMR and by those who do not experience ASMR.
What causes this misophonia to ASMR triggers? This is unknown. One possibility is the occurrence of a negative event with that sound earlier in life.
Comparing ASMR triggers to food is a useful analogy again. Person A may like the taste of ginger but Person B dislikes the taste of ginger. It may turn out that person A remembers a food poisoning experience at one point that involved the taste of ginger. Or maybe Person A has no idea why they don’t like ginger.
In a similar manner, if someone has a negative event with a specific sound then perhaps they will experience misophonia to that sound later in life.
At this point, it seems the ability to experience ASMR, and the preferences for specific ASMR triggers is very subjective. Hopefully, research will cast some light on these poorly lit areas.