What was with that Super Bowl commercial featuring oddly relaxing images of actress Zoe Kravitz whispering into a pair of microphones and softly tapping on a bottle?
The beer ad, for Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, has already drawn more than 13 million views online, and its high-profile TV slot exposed a vast audience to an internet craze known as ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response.
In the ad, Kravitz sits at a desk in the middle of a glorious mountain setting. She whispers her lines into two microphones — enunciating every syllable — then drags a Michelob bottle across the tabletop and clicks her nails on the glass. Amid all the Super Bowl bombast, it was a weird and attention-getting moment of serenity.
Some people spend hours watching videos of hair brushing, paper crinkling or “happy little clouds” artist Bob Ross painting because they say it makes their brains tingle. They report feeling a rush from the subtle, repetitive sights and sounds, but is it all in their heads?
Not everyone feels ASMR. And so far, there’s not enough evidence to recommend it as a stand-alone treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia or any of the other problems its fans claim it solves.
But a few scientists are trying to study ASMR, and there is evidence that there might be something to it. And if any harm is done, it’s not financial: It’s usually free.
WHAT IS ASMR?
Most people agree the sound of nails on a chalkboard is freakishly unpleasant. ASMR is described as an opposite feeling: a tingly euphoric response, usually starting on the head and scalp, and sometimes spreading down the neck, arms or back.
Triggers include videos of someone turning pages in a book, pretending to give an eye exam or tapping on a collection of purses.
Some call it a “brain orgasm,” though most say it’s not sexual. They say it’s deeply relaxing, making it different from goosebumps or chills. The feeling helps some people get to sleep.
“I’ll feel my eyelids start to droop. I’ll feel a tingling sensation start toward the top of my head and slowly travel down my neck to my shoulders to my fingertips,” said Robert Calaceto, 24, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, who uses it nightly before going to sleep and sometimes after work. “Listening to these videos helps my mind to mellow out.”
Craig Richard, author of “Brain Tingles” and a professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, traces the history to 2007 when a post titled “Weird sensation feels good” kicked off a conversation in an internet health forum.
A Facebook group and YouTube channels followed. From the start, people shared their triggers: slow or quiet talking, teeth cleaning and chewing sounds.
Today, millions subscribe to content from the most popular ASMR artists. Products including Dove chocolate, Behr paint, and IKEA have used it in advertising. A hair-cutting scene in the 2017 movie “Battle of the Sexes” was designed to elicit the response. A live ASMR spa experience has launched with planned performances in New York and California.
IS IT REAL?
About a dozen research studies have been published. That’s not a lot in the world of medical science.
In England, University of Sheffield researchers found something surprising when they hooked up 112 volunteers to electrodes to gather biophysical data during ASMR videos: The tinglers seemed physically excited, but their heart rates slowed.
Half the volunteers were self-identified ASMR fans. They had greater reductions in their heart rates — by about 3 beats per minute — compared to the non-tinglers while watching the same videos. Their bodies became more excited, compared to non-tinglers, as measured by how their skin conducted electricity.
In Canada, University of Winnipeg researchers conducted brain scans of 11 people who experience ASMR and 11 people who don’t. The scientists measured which areas of the brain fired together when participants were lying in the scanner but weren’t watching any videos.
In the brains of ASMR people, they saw unexpected “teams” of neurons firing together, suggesting that normally distinct networks were blended together.
That could mean ASMR is similar to synesthesia, a better-known condition where people describe seeing music or numbers as specific colors.
For ASMR to take hold in mainstream science hinges on whether the craze lasts long enough for researchers to find out whether it helps people with stress or other health problems. That kind of study is expensive and lengthy.
For now, Richard said the best way to think about ASMR is “supplemental intimacy.” It shouldn’t replace healthy relationships, but it can be used to improve mood.
A pleasant feeling caused by a soft voice, caring gaze, gentle disposition, light touch and soothing hand movements — “that’s something we’re born with,” he said, “and its purpose is to soothe and comfort.”
It could even be educational.
“I think it helps teach people the feeling from a healthy relationship,” Richard said. “You can have people learning for the first time what a healthy relationship feels like from an ASMR video.”