Cal Poly alumna Nikki Telegan remembers sticking her hands and feet into homemade mud pies as a child, reveling in the sensation of the mud between her digits. Her curiosity toward the sensation persisted into her adult life, and playing with mud pies evolved into playing with food.
“Definitely anything wet or gushy feels really interesting to me,” Telegan said.
It was not until last year when someone told her that what she was feeling — the pleasant, visceral experience — was ASMR.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has carved a niche for itself within pop culture — predominantly with women “ASMRtists” on Youtube — since the term was coined in 2010. Now as one of the top 20 YouTube channel genres, ASMR videos have caught the attention of millions of people around the world. The popularity is a result of the reported euphoric, tingling feeling some people experience when listening to or watching an ASMR video.
ASMR is usually articulated as “brain tingles,” a physical sensation that moves down the head, neck or scalp. It can also be psychological, bringing on feelings of relaxation and ease. The woman responsible for the acronym ASMR, Jennifer Allen, originally described it as a “brain orgasm.”
Allen came up with the acronym ASMR to articulate feelings she had been having since she was a child. In 2009 after multiple goog searches, Allen found people on online message boards having similar sensations and without vocabulary to describe them. In 2010, she presented her acronym to the message boards, and by 2015, ASMR had an established foothold in pop culture.
Telegan is one of those people who experience ASMR, as well as one of the many people experimenting to discover new ways to feel the ASMR sensation. She uses food — pulling it apart and squishing it between her fingers — to discover new ways to trigger the sensation with day-to-day items.
“We could be so cognizantly aware that ‘Oh, I’m doing this to this thing,’ but at the same time you kind of lose yourself in it,” Telegan said. “Our brains don’t overthink the reaction, we just have it.”
Telegan also regularly watches an ASMRtist on Instagram who takes five minutes to open one Kinder Egg while she taps colorful acrylic nails against the plastic exterior.
“If you’re aware of what you’re excited by, you have this ability to discover the potential of everything around you,” Telegan said.
A young girl roleplaying as a state police officer issuing a ticket, three-hour-long videos of cats purring, a woman taking a slow bite into a whole pickle, Cardi B reciting her signature ‘Okur’ at a whisper — there is no shortage of YouTube videos created by different ASMRtists exploring possible triggers. There is even a video of a girl roleplaying as a doctor running different ASMR tests to see if you are able to feel the sensation.
The sensation of ASMR is not felt by everyone. For some, the experience can be anything but pleasant. In response to a Facebook post asking for opinions about ASMR, one student wrote: “It sends [me] into a white hot rage.”
However, those that do experience ASMR report it helps with stress, sleep and even depression and anxiety. Oftentimes, they can also recall feeling similar sensations before the age of 13.
Assistant Professor of Psychology Laura Cacciamani does research focused on sensation and perception and how the senses interact with each other, and said she shares people’s curiosity towards ASMR. In her study of the subject, she said she has learned about some of the ways the brain reacts to ASMR.
“ASMR tends to activate the award center of the brain, so kind of like a pleasure-seeking feeling that you can get from many different types of objects,” Cacciamani said. “I did see that people who tend to experience ASMR have a different type of activation in what’s called the default-mode network in the brain, which is a series of brain areas that are active at rest.”
Cacciamani said she thinks because some still see ASMR as a pseudoscience, there is a hesitation to accept it as an area of study. Despite ASMR’s popularity within pop culture, research on it has been sparse. According to the online archive ASMR University, the first published peer-reviewed paper on ASMR was published in 2015, and only 10 have been published since.
Regardless of research, ASMR YouTube channels keep posting videos to millions of subscribers. The world of ASMR has grown immensely since the first video posted to YouTube in 2009 — a less than two-minute-long video of a girl whispering about how good it feels to whisper.
The fast growing community of ASMR means trends within the genre move quickly, catering to whatever new triggers are discovered. Whether it is biting into a whole honeycomb, fluttering fingers that dance like they are doing the itsy-bitsy spider or extreme roleplay — like a sassy flight attendant whispering flight safety instructions — ASMR continues to evolve. As it evolves, it attracts more people like Telegan trying to find out what makes them feel good.
“Depending on their experience, or aesthetic preferences, or sensation preferences or behaviors that will impact what their specific reaction is, I think everyone is capable of understanding an ASMR reaction,” Telegan said.