Whispers and Tingles: ASMR with Craig Richard (S3, Ep9)

ASMR, or the autonomous sensory meridian response, is a state of deep calm accompanied by a sense of “brain tingles.” Not everyone experiences it, but if you do, you know what triggers it: a whisper or other soft sounds, a gentle touch or movement, even watching a Bob Ross video. Physiologist Craig Richard explains the science behind ASMR, and why in some people induces a deeply relaxing response that can resolve insomnia, relaxation, and stress. Plus: Who are the top “artists” of ASMR?  

Phil Stieg: Hello. I’d like to welcome Professor Craig Richard, founder of ASMR University. ASMR is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, the deeply relaxing sensation in response to certain stimuli, whispering, crinkling, paper, touch and more. Dr. Richard is here to explain. Craig, thank you for being with us today.

Craig Richard: Thank you, Dr. Stieg.

Phil Stieg: So, let’s cut to the chase. What is ASMR?

Craig Richard: It is a deeply relaxed mixing feeling where people often feel these light staticky, what they’re referred to as brain tingles or tingles on their scalp, which may travel further down their body. The triggers for this are all have a gentle nature to them. So it’s someone’s gentle voice, it’s gentle light sounds, gentle movements, and it’s even light or gentle touch if it’s being experienced in person with someone else. I think the most important aspect of it, though, is context.   ASMR happens when you’re receiving positive personal attention from a kinder, caring person. So in real life, this might happen with a health care professional. It might happen with a teacher, a parent, a hairdresser, your best friend who’s just playing with your hair. These kinds of just positive personal moments stimulate this deep, relaxing feeling.

Phil Stieg: Not everybody experiences these brain tingles. Do you have any idea of what proportion of the population do?

Craig Richard: No one’s done a random population sampling, so it is unknown. It has not been determined scientifically. I throw out the number 20%. There’s a spectrum of response. Maybe only 10% have a really strong response, maybe 30% have a weak response. But it’s so popular that it has to be a significant amount of the population.

Phil Stieg: In reading through the materials on this whole topic, the term brain orgasm was thrown out there. Do you think that was good for the field or not? Because it seems to me to throw a person off from what you’re really trying to get at.

Craig Richard: Yeah. There’s an upside and a downside of that term. It was one of the early terms because people were so surprised by this enjoyable feeling they had in these moments, they didn’t expect it. So they did call it a brain orgasm. It was not a good term because it does set up a false expectation. If you’re thinking you’re going to feel it like an actual orgasm, you’re going to be disappointed.

Phil Stieg: It gets people off track.

Craig Richard: Exactly. Yeah.

Phil Stieg: Do you personally experience brain tingles?

Craig Richard: Yes. I don’t think I’m a strong responder. I’ve seen strong responders.

Phil Stieg: So there’s a spectrum?

Craig Richard: Yes.

Phil Stieg: Okay. So I’m presuming since there was a huge number of people watching the Super Bowl, many of individuals may have seen that advertisement with Zoe Kravitz for a beer advertisement. Maybe you can explain the advertisement to people so they know what we’re talking about. And then how does that reflect ASMR?

Craig Richard: Yeah, I was the consultant for that Super Bowl commercial. And what the ad was doing was simulating what is done in the ASMR video, which is simulating what is done in real life.

Commercial soundtrack:

Let’s all experience something together.  This place …so pure you can feel it… This beer, so pure you can taste it.  Beer in its organic form…

Craig Richard: So you don’t see many Super Bowl ads that will try this technique. But sure enough, it worked really well because there’s two ways to get people’s attention. You can yell … or you can whisper.

Phil Stieg: I would submit that the pop of the beer bottle, the fizz that when she was pouring it into the glass, all of those sensations really are pleasing sensations. And I didn’t notice that I had a Tingle. So maybe I’m not a Tingler, but I certainly was attracted to the advertisement on multiple different levels. And that’s why I have trouble trying to understand what really is the ASMR component versus all the other stimuli that I’m experiencing.

Craig Richard: Yeah, it can be confusing. So some people might have been tuned into the ad because they found her attractive. Some people were tuned in maybe just because they were curious about the whispering. And some people were tuned into it because all of sudden they started to feel these strange brain tingles. So it could be one of several reasons that someone might lean into that ad.

Phil Stieg: Yeah. In reading through your book Brain Tingles, you get into more than just the videos. I mean, obviously, there are other ways to experience ASMR. Can you highlight some of the more common techniques for an individual to experience a brain tingle?

Craig Richard: People experience ASMR in real life all the time. People will recall experiencing it as a child.  It might be like a best friend’s sleepover where they’re braiding each other’s hair, or they’re playing that game where you draw letters lightly on each other’s backs. And there’s something about that light touch and that positive personal attention. They’ll recall moments being a child when a kind teacher knelt down beside them and help them solve a math problem. And it just gave them these relaxing tingles. And then people report experiencing it with their healthcare professionals when they get maybe a cranial exam or I just simply enjoy, you know, when they touch your neck to feel if your lymph nodes are swollen, your lymph nodes are swollen. Just that can also stimulate it. I get it during eye exams.

Phil Stieg: I got a haircut last night, but she was rubbing too hard. It wasn’t as pleasant as I wanted.

Craig Richard:  And you’re right, with ASMR. It is a lighter touch that does it, which can kind of distinguish it from massage.

Phil Stieg: But some of the other experiences that you described also like crumpling of paper or the sound of lips chewing, those I found interesting as well that they might cause a brain Tingle. But then also on the other end of the spectrum is some individuals describe it as. I don’t like that at all. And it turns them off.

Craig Richard: And that’s where there is not just a spectrum of ASMR, but a spectrum of a wider response, which is some people can find crinkling, tapping, whispering, chewing sounds super relaxing, and they may get ASMR.  Or they may hate those sounds, they may feel annoyed. And that term is misophonia. So this is a strange overlap with the whole field of misophonia, which are people who are triggered and made angry and annoyed by certain sounds, that there’s a lot of crossover with the triggers of the stimuli. So someone can find whispering super relaxing, and someone else can’t rip their headphones off quickly enough.

Phil Stieg: The novice or the person who’s uninformed about this, listening to the podcast, what are the most popular forms for inducing a brain tingle?

Craig Richard: Yeah, well, start always with context. Make sure it’s a positive personal situation. So within that context, whispering has been shown through several scientific studies to be the most popular and or strongest trigger. Other ones include the sound of tapping, the sound of crinkling. And then all of these sounds may be put within a role play or a simulation where you’re getting the eye gazing, you’re getting the kind person. And one of the individuals who is often pointed out as triggering a lot of ASMR in people is Bob Ross.

And so if you can visualize and imagine Bob Ross, you’re imagining, really the context and the triggers for ASMR. Because he had his kind disposition and gave you this personal attention. And then he had the sound of his brushes tap, tap, tapping on the canvas. And for a lot of people that stimulates the ASMR. It’s one of my early memories of experiencing ASMR is watching Bob Ross paint.

Phil Stieg: You also indicate that there are other sensations that somebody might experience beyond just the Tingle that you describe. But there’s sleepiness, relaxation, euphoria. I would think that those are good things. If it makes you really relaxed and makes you sleepy, I can certainly see it being applied in the insomniac or the anxious person.

Craig Richard: Yeah. And that is the biggest reason people watching ASMR videos, relaxation and to help them to fall asleep. Within that group of people, there are some people who have anxiety or may have insomnia, and they’re also reporting that it’s helpful for their conditions. It’s probably not as strong. We have preliminary data that shows that if you just have trouble with stress, people who watch ASMR videos find it very helpful. If their stress is so extreme that they have clinical anxiety, it’s not going to be as helpful because the condition is much more severe. So ASMR is not going to be a magic bullet that’s going to be taking care of everyone’s anxiety, even if you do experience ASMR. But what we see about is about 50% of people who are diagnosed or report to be diagnosed with anxiety do report ASMR is helpful for their condition.

Phil Stieg: Would you describe ASMR as different than mindfulness or as part of the spectrum in applying concepts like mindfulness or ASMR?

Craig Richard: I think ASMR and mindfulness are two different ways to get to that same place or a similar place. Mindfulness is slightly different. Mindfulness usually is about the person putting themselves into a relaxed state. That’s very different from ASMR. ASMR almost always relies on someone else putting you into a relaxed state. And that may explain part of the difference.  I’ve seen two research studies that have investigated the tendency for people who experience ASMR to be able to experience mindfulness, and unfortunately, one showed a positive association and the other one showed a negative association.

Phil Stieg: Welcome to science!

Craig Richard: Yeah, exactly. So ASMR research and science is so young, there’s still so much to be figured out. But these are all good questions about what is the difference with other things like mindfulness.

Phil Stieg: But you yourself have been involved with some functional MRI studies looking at ASMR and what parts of the brain are activated. Can you describe that for us in layman’s terms?

Craig Richard: Yeah, I think I never get too excited or impressed when if someone’s enjoying something and they do a brain scan and the nucleus accumben shows increased activity, which is associated with dopamine and desires, like, well, duh, that’s what dopamine does. So, yeah, I didn’t think the nucleus accumbens and the dopamine association was really that profound. The emotional arousal was interesting because this is supposed to be a relaxed state. You wouldn’t have expected emotional arousal in some areas or areas associated with emotional arousal to be activated. And so there does seem to be for these moments, these peak moments of ASMR. There is an increased arousal state, of course, not referring to sexual arousal, but referring to maybe a little bit more increased alertness, but in a positive way, like joy. And this may be why people say they enjoy ASMR so much, because in the peak moments, there is this positive emotional arousal that seems to happen.

Phil Stieg: I also was educated and preparing for this about the concepts of is it Freson? Listening to music, I can certainly relate to the fact that you put on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, and I just get a chill. How is that different or similar to ASMR?

Craig Richard: Yeah. Frisson is a feeling of shivers. So if you’ve ever felt cold air on the back of your neck, you might get frisson and feel those chills and goosebumps.  If you’ve ever heard an evocative speech that might stimulate your chills, your frisson.  But the other thing that stimulates frisson is music.  It’s the same thing where you get the goosebumps, and your hairs rise up. That’s different from ASMR tingles. ASMR tingles are just a light sparkly staticky feeling in the brain as opposed to on the surface you don’t see the tingles but you feel the tingles. So there are a lot of similarities but also differences between the two.

The strange thing, though, is that if you look at all the popular ASMR videos, practically all of them don’t have music. Music doesn’t appear to be a strong stimulator of ASMR. Music may inhibit the ASMR response.

Interstitial Theme music

Narrator: The ASMR sub-culture on YouTube is huge. Some ASMRtists, as they call themselves, have attracted followings in the millions.  One of the highest-earning ASMRtists is a woman from South Korea known as “Jane ASMR”, who has nearly 9 million followers.  Here she is enjoying a meal of Kentucky Fried chicken and extremely crispy French fries.

Unlike most ASM Artists, Jane never shows her entire face to the camera in any of her videos. The audience can see only her mouth as she chews. More typical videos feature direct eye contact and gentle whispering.  It doesn’t really seem to matter what the whispering is about.

Gentle Whispering: The set up is usually approximately one inch away from the end.

Narrator: Here, a Russian artist who actually calls herself “Gentle Whispering,” is describing how to set a table for a formal dinner…

Gentle Whispering: You’ll see there’s a bread and butter plate on your left.

Narrator: A 24-year-old woman in Florida who goes by the name “ASMR Darling” strokes the pages of a novel before she begins to read…

ASMR Darling: Let’s just read the first page. Part 1.  1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.

Narrator: Other artists like Gibi reach out to their audiences with variety of experiences, including dressing up in costumes for role-playing scenarios, or pretending to touch the viewer’s face.

Gibi:  Hello Everybody, My name is Gibi, and today I’ll be touching your face, … if that’s all right with you…Thank you…

Narrator: Creating innovative sounds for their videos has become, for some, a very lucrative career.  Top earners like Canadian ASMArtist HunniBee (heard here enjoying a selection of brightly colored candies) can make millions of dollars a year.

Narrator: You might want to think again the next time you tell your kids to chew with their mouths closed at the dinner table …. You never know if they’re going to be the next YouTube sensation.

Interstitial Theme Music fade out

Phil Stieg: In your recent book, “Brain Tingles”, the secret to triggering autonomous sensory Meridian responses. I read the whole thing and it’s really kind of a how-to. What was your personal goal with publishing this book?

Craig Richard: Yeah, it was exactly what you just said was to make it a how-to a do it yourself textbook that would help people who want to bring ASMR into their homes or their business or their workplace. So, for example, if you have a child that needs comforting, we know the basics. If you have a child that is having trouble falling asleep, you know that yelling at them is not going to help them fall asleep. So what you might do is you sit down and you reread them a book. The more you understand ASMR triggers, the more you can incorporate that into things like helping your child fall asleep. What you do is you might whisper-read the book instead of normal voice. Read the book. Perhaps you don’t read it in a dramatic fashion, which would excite them, but you read it a little bit more in a monotone. You don’t flip the pages quickly to continue the story. You slowly turn and crinkle the page. You don’t just read the words. You put your finger on the words and you trace them as you read them.  You touch the illustrations. All of these are things you’ll see done in ASMR videos that helps individuals adults relax and fall asleep more easily.  And these are things parents could do a little bit more if they understood what are the triggers for relaxing individuals.

Phil Stieg: I was reading through it. It seemed like an excellent method to reduce anxiety, get people to relax, get people to fall asleep. So in essence, what you’re really getting at, as I would see it, is making people understand what is relaxing, what activities are relaxing, and then how to personally apply that in their lives. But how is that different then from I’m in a tense situation, I just start breathing, controlling my breathing, or I go into mindfulness and apply that again. Is it the spectrum?

Craig Richard: There’s a lot of different ways to get to a state of reducing your stress and feeling relaxed. And you pointed out some great options. For some people, mindfulness works. For some people, meditation works. For some people, yoga works. And for some people, ASMR or ASMR videos work. I tried yoga once. I didn’t like it. I found it painful. But for me, ASMR videos engage my brain and they bring me to that state of relaxation. I’m not good at doing it myself. So I think it’s just another tool in the toolbox.

Phil Stieg: As you noted, ASMR causes the increased release of dopamine and you get the pleasure response from that. In watching a lot of the videos, however, I had the sense that there was a real sensual quality to them. Lots of attractive people, males and females, and certainly the motions and the sounds, it’s all integrated to make you as pleased as possible. Is that what ASMR is about? I don’t think so. But that seems the way it’s playing out.

Craig Richard: Right. And it can be confusing because if you’re like, okay, I’m going to check out the ASMR on YouTube. I’m going to put in ASMR and the first search results you get may appear to be leaning towards the sensual side or perhaps the sexual side. Well, that’s viewer response. People click on those and so they will rise up in YouTube search. But if you then go search for the top ASMR artists, you’ll see they don’t lean on those. The ones that don’t lean on that and focus just on the gentle sounds, the gentle behaviors they have the most followers

Several studies have looked into this. And so one show that they ask people, why do you watch these ASMR videos? 5% did say for sexual stimulation, but that’s 5% – as opposed to the 95% that said, I watch it to relax. There was another study where they showed people ASMR videos and they showed them non-ASMR videos, and then they asked them, are you sexually aroused? It was a minority in both studies, in both groups, but there was no difference. It just means that sometimes people, when they hit play, they’re already sexually aroused and it may not matter what they’re watching.

And so for me, one of the best pieces of evidence that ASMR is not just a sexual thing, it’s two words. Bob Ross. So many people report feeling and experiencing ASMR from watching Bob Ross paint. I’m sure some people find him attractive.  I don’t think the first thing you hear about Bob Ross is pleasing to the eyes. It’s his personality, it’s his gentle sounds, it’s his gentle nature. It’s the positive personal attention. He’s making you feel special.

Phil Stieg: Also, listening to you, one can’t help pick up on the concept, as you said, speaking softly to your child, reading the book in kind of a soft, gentle term, the sense of love that’s transmitted by doing this process. What are your thoughts about ASMR and love?

Craig Richard: I think there’s huge overlap there. I think it’s all in the way you define love is someone genuinely caring for you and you feeling them care about you, that you’re special to that person. That is the connection that’s being established between the ASMR artist in the video and the viewer. But I wouldn’t call it love when I go to my optician and they give me an eye exam, I wouldn’t call that love. But it’s so relaxing. I think the strong commonality that supports this concept of love is I think oxytocin is central.  And oxytocin is stimulated in positive personal interactions, whether it’s human to human or it’s within other species. When they’re given caring behaviors to each other, when a parent is caring for an infant of that species. And so oxytocin does have the nickname the love hormone. It is released between partners who express romantic love, but it’s also released between best friends and it’s released between parents and infants. So I think ASMR does fall under the large umbrella of love.

Phil Stieg: Do you think that because of all of the bombardment that we experience now with our cell phones and social media and the web and all that, that’s part of the drive towards things like ASMR?

Craig Richard: There is that concern. Are people just going to turn to ASMR videos instead of forming real “in life” positive personal interactions?  The way I see ASMR right now is it’s supplemental. It’s when you need that feeling of a little more positive personal attention. But the people around you can’t give that to you or aren’t giving that to you at that moment or that day. Then you can turn to an ASMR video. If someone’s too busy to comfort you because you’ve had a horrible day, you can turn to that ASMR video. So I think it’s analogous to a treadmill. We all don’t have the time to be able to go out on a rainy day and go to the mountains and hike and get all this physical activity. So we supplement our physical activity with a treadmill. Should we only get our physical activity on treadmill?  No. Should we only get our intimacy and personal interactions from ASMR videos? No. But there are times when all those are helpful supplements.

Phil Stieg: I’m going to ask my last question to you as a scientist, but also a human being that’s interested in this subject matter. As a scientist, what do you hope to learn? But then more importantly, probably as a human, what are your most fanciful thoughts about what ASMR might mean for humankind?

Craig Richard: Yeah, for me, it’s helping me understand the exact behaviors and traits associated with what relaxes someone. And it helps me.  Sometimes I have to talk to students who are distressed about their grades. And I know it’s really important to giving them comfort is to listen. And you’ll see this in ASMR videos where they don’t just talk at the viewer. They go, how was your day today? And they pause in the video and they pretend to hear the person who’s watching the video.  And they give great eye contact. They keep their facial gestures very relaxed. And it really is this confirmation of what is comforting. You get to witness by watching ASMR videos what relaxes people, and that’s something that you can incorporate into being a parent. You can incorporate that into soothing a child who just skinned their knee or soothing a student who’s struggling with their grades or maybe talking to an employee who might be frustrated about something that’s going on at the company. There’s just so much you can learn about personal interactions and how what you say and what you do and how you act affects someone else. And it’s kind of helped me to see and understand that.

And if there’s clinical potential here, then that’s fantastic. That if this could be utilized to help people who struggle with anxiety, insomnia would also be fantastic. But those clinical studies still need to be done.

Phil Stieg: Dr. Craig Richard, thank you so much for being with us today and highlighting what autonomous sensory Meridian responses are and differentiating them from other pleasurable sensations in our life. Hopefully our listeners will learn to appreciate the value of this and enjoy the reduction and anxiety and get some relaxation out of life and we look forward to you providing more data to the benefits of this technique. Thank you so much.

Craig Richard: Thank you.