If you have trouble falling asleep, you'll try pretty much anything to get some shuteye, from sleeping in cool temperatures to meditation to breathing exercises. But a new sensory sleep experience method called ASMR is rapidly gaining attention for its purported beneficial sleep effects.
If you spend a lot of time on the internet, you've probably seen ASMR videos on Youtube or Reddit, or come across an ASMR playlist on Spotify. But is it a legit method to help you fall (and stay) asleep? We asked sleep experts to find out.
What is ASMR?
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. It's often described as the sensory phenomenon of “'tingling' sensations often on the scalp, neck, and sometimes spreading to the back and limbs, with feelings of positive emotion (almost euphoric) and relaxation," says Mary Ellen Wells, Ph.D., director and assistant professor at the Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The term ASMR was coined in 2010 by the founder of a Facebook group that documented the sensation. But it's also been referred to as "brain tingles" or a "brain orgasm." ASMR YouTube videos have been referred to as "whisper videos" or "whisper porn." (Note: despite such sexually charged terminology, there is nothing inherently sexual about ASMR, though there is a growing niche of erotic ASMR videos.)
ASMR is typically triggered by some sort of sensory stimulation (visual, auditory, touch), otherwise known as a "trigger."
Some examples of well-known triggers include:
Visual -- watching someone focus on a task, such as folding laundry or assembling a model.
Auditory – whispering, brushing sounds, tapping, paper crinkling, etc. Soft and soothing voices can also trigger the sensation, which is why YouTube videos of the late painter Bob Ross are so popular in the ASMR community, says Wells.
Touch – getting hair brushed, gentle touching of hands, manicures, etc.
How does it work?
Put simply, science actually hasn't fully figured ASMR out. The phenomenon is simply too new and there's not enough research to support its existence, let alone its benefits.
But researchers have a few theories. One 2014 study from Swansea University found that ASMR may be related to synesthesia, a phenomenon in which people's experience of one sense is linked to their experience of another sense (for instance, the ability to hear colors, or see certain smells). Some people believe that synesthesia is caused by "cross-wiring" in the brain, or the intersection of one sensory system with another.
Others speculate that ASMR may be similar to frisson, the technical term for when you get "chills" or shivers down your spine from, say, listening to a piece of emotionally affecting music. And yet another theory asserts that ASMR may result from the same physiological mechanism that produces seizures.
Either way, based on anecdotal experience alone, it's clear that some people are capable of experiencing ASMR, while others simply do not. "I think the experience, for those able to experience it, is immediate," says W. Christopher Winter, MD, sleep researcher and author of The Sleep Solution. "I infer from [anecdotal evidence] it can have an immediate impact and probably gets better for most over time."
Does ASMR have any therapeutic benefits?
Because we don't even know how ASMR works yet, we can't say for sure whether it can be used for therapeutic purposes. But there are many within the community who believe that "ASMR's primary benefits may be to minimize chronic pain, improve feelings of depression/anxiety, and as a relaxation tool for sleep," says Winter.
One study from earlier this year found that watching ASMR videos reduced subjects' heart rate and increased skin conductance levels, indicating that there may be some physiological basis for ASMR inducing feelings of rest and relaxation.
Even if you don't experience the tell-tale "tingles," it's possible that watching ASMR videos or listening to an ASMR playlist could help you fall asleep, says Wells. "In sleep, it’s important to be able to relax before bed and put all of your worries and 'to-do' lists aside. I often tell people to do something boring and monotonous if they find their mind racing before bed. Some of the techniques described for ASMR are just that –boring and monotonous," she says.
That said, due to the lack of research surrounding ASMR itself, "how long it takes to develop into something that facilitates sleep, anxiety improvement, etc. is unclear," says Winter. Plus, many people watch ASMR videos on their phones, and many studies have indicated that bringing your phone into bed with you is linked to lower-quality sleep.
How do you know if you have ASMR?
It's something of a matter of trial and error, as the ASMR triggers that work for you may not work for another person. "Stimuli that produce ASMR are perceptual, in other words, specific to each person," says Wells.
Based on one 2017 study of ASMR triggers, the best way to find out if ASMR works for you is to find a 1-5 minute-long video with at least two sensory triggers (e.g., a video of someone whispering and rubbing their hands on carpet at the same time, says Winter.) "The video needs to make the watcher feel like they are there...very close to the subject, immersed in the experience," he adds.
ASMR may work for you, and it might not. But finding that relaxing routine before bed is key.
"Your ASMR may or may not be triggered, but doing something relaxing and de-stressing before bed is certainly a plus for sleep," says Wells. It's all about finding your ultimate chill.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health US.