Brain orgasm created by sounds

ASMR. Does it influence the subconscious? Is it addictive like any other pleasure? Why doesn't your doctor know about this? Why more and more often in videos i.e. about cooking or eating, we are advised that we “must watch with the sound on", even though not a single word is uttered? Does it work for everyone?

If you don't know what ASMR is, you don't stand a chance to succeed as a YouTuber or TikToker today, and you are not trendy, to say the least. If you don't know what it is, you may be unintentionally undergoing a "brain massage" by watching - and especially listening to - videos by specialists on "singing and the masses".

15 million "ASMR" videos on YT cannot be wrong, because clicks are what matters here, and they translate to millions of likes, and therefore millions of ads. The person who learns the secrets of the commercial use of ASMR can earn those millions. It is not easy, because we can be very different when it comes to our susceptibility to various stimuli. Still, in terms of curiosity and surfing the web in search of more, we are quite similar.

When they speak Polish, I’m ecstatic…

Let me start with a quote that will appeal to our national vanity, and at the same time will allow us to understand what ASMR is all about. On the pages of the first volume of the autobiographical trilogy "The Rosy Crucifixion", published in Poland under the title "Sexus" in 1949, Henry Miller admits: "There’s one thing I like about Poles - their language. When intelligent people speak Polish, I get ecstatic. Its sound evokes strange images in me, in their background there is always a turf made of beautiful sharp grass with hornets and snakes roaming in it. (...) I never understood what they were saying, but it felt as if they were murdering someone in an elegant way ”.

Without trying to make far-reaching comparisons, I will only mention that when my mother left her hometown of Przemyśl, to pursue mathematical studies, she recalled that sometimes she was asked by her colleagues to tell them long stories. Not only because of what she had to say but rather because of how she spoke Polish with a singing Eastern accent. The melody of this speech was at least as important here as the content, because it was so pleasing.

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Of course, Polish is not special. Some people get shivers down their spines at the sound of French, others - Spanish or Italian. There will probably be those who get this pleasant experience with ki-Swahili, especially when accompanied by a pleasant, holiday picture. And that is just one aspect of the sources of "low-level euphoria". Sometimes - for example in a trivial fried chicken in a bucket ad of a global brand - a whispered message is enough, instead of a spoken one. Or, finally, the sound of the so-called "Queen's English", the English accent which as recently as half a century ago was commonly used by English aristocracy and which nowadays is a rarity (American women are especially sensitive to it).

It is not only about the sound of the words or the accent. It is about various, sometimes bizarre, sound-visual impressions, so the "goosebumps" can be created thanks to stimuli from a video in which a beautiful Korean girl under the pseudonym "Hamzy ASMR" cooks. She does so by scratching with flip flops on the floor, rinsing pots, washing, and peeling vegetables, chopping, frying until it simmers in the wok, and in the meantime opening soda cans (what a sound that is! - everyone addicted to Coca-Cola ads knows, right?). After that, she eats the dish with an appetite, Asian style, that is, by munching and slurping. She eats with a monstrous appetite, literally stuffing her mouth, gracefully maneuvering a wooden spoon and chopsticks. 3.5 million fans on FB!

The sounds of her feast are not simply recorded by the camcorder's microphone. Some sounds are fully added in post-production, and others are "boosted". The images shot with several cameras, although they seem very natural (the girl is usually in pajamas or sweatpants and without visible make-up), are precisely directed. No, these videos do not include recipes or the names of the ingredients added. It's not about learning how to cook with yet another - this time a very young and self-proclaimed chef. The point is to make the viewer feel better.

Sounds that give you delightful creeps

The fashion for ASMR appeared, or rather exploded, in 2016. The phenomenon was first named six years earlier. In December 2020, it got the first - to my knowledge - summary in quite numerous scientific papers that examined this "autonomous sensory meridian response" (ASMR), unfortunately among small groups of people.
There is no porn in ASMR movies, at most food-porn - an embellished presentation of cooking or food. Pictured here is the Dublin Food Porn Festival 2016 poster for amateur culinary photographers. Photo Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images
The end result of this stimulation - felt by many, but not all of us - is also known as "brain orgasm". In the existing materials marked as ASMR (on the YT channel for the last 5 years there have been at least a dozen million films signed in this way and probably twice as many unmarked), there is no eroticism or any kind of pornography. Well, maybe except for food porn, albeit natural (with no improvements and tricks such as crispy lettuce leaves made of dyed paraffin, chemically-generated foams on sparkling drinks, or the shaving cream used instead of whipped cream, which fool us in TV food commercials). The videos are also often set in nature. There is a forest or a meadow, a nearby spring murmurs and splashes, insects are buzzing, (but unobtrusively, because this, in turn, can cause fear) i.e. grasshoppers chirping, etc. - see, for example, "Menwiththepot".

Meridian is a non-scientific concept, derived from Chinese medicine, and as such - not applicable to evidence-based medicine. It describes the apparent line connecting acupuncture points and allegedly refers to the path (channel) that the equally unscientific energy "qi" travels in the body. From my point of view, therefore, there is nothing to talk about, until science explains it with phenomena in the human body that can be demonstrated and investigated with experiments.

ASMR (or whatever you want to call it), as such, is not pseudoscientific insofar as there are people who experience this tingling sensation, usually starting on the scalp and moving down the pine. And so far as it is possible to study this pleasant form of paresthesia au rebours using modern methods of psychology and neuroscience (from EEG to functional tomography). Usually, the tingling, numbness, the feeling of a "running current", chills or cramps in the stomach caused by anxiety phenomena or disorders of the peripheral or central nervous system, which are called paresthesia are, however, not pleasant sensations.

Misophonia, on the other hand, is an aversion to sounds such as chewing, coughing, or loud breathing. Although misophonia and ASMR appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, studies have shown that individuals capable of ASMR scored higher on the misophonia questionnaire than those in the control group. It happens, however, that although the sound of blades on glass or stone, various pings, and horns, makes us feel "anxious" and gives us terrible shivers, and cold sweat, the sound of chopping food on a cutting board, combined with cutting skills visible on film, tingles us pleasantly, and our hands warm-up instead of getting numb and losing circulation, and in the stomach we feel an appetite rather than a pit.

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Pleasant shivers down the spine can therefore be caused by the sounds of slurping and/or crunching - this is what happens often in Asians, but not only - chopping and other cooking noises, such as gurgling liquids or sparks from a fire in the hearth. What is associated with eating can be a source of primal pleasure, just like belly-stroking.

Everything, no matter how different, happens along the same way: receptors (ears, eyes) - brain - effectors (skin). So why is it so different?

So c’mon paint my world

The phenomenon itself most closely resembles the so-called musical or aesthetic thrills (frisson), or "chills down the spine" while listening to the peak moments in music. Neuroimaging on a small sample of ASMR-capable participants (10 people) showed that ASMR and frisson display similar neurofunctional patterns of brain activation in reward and emotion areas. However, individuals with ASMR had increased activation of the area related to social cognition, social behavior (e.g., seduction), and self-awareness, while persons with frisson had decreased activation of this area.

We can also be dealing here - according to science - with a certain kind of synesthesia, precisely the auditory-tactile one. What is it? The most common synesthesia (more than half of the recorded cases of people manifesting this neurological phenomenon, not considered a pathology, rather a special talent) is the so-called colored graphemes. People with it perceive letters or numbers in color. Almost like from a Polish children's classic: “Mr. Inkblot’s Academy”. I personally know a person who sees music in such a colorful way, and not because in the course of studying music some "colorful" mnemonics were used in his education.

This type of visual synesthesia causes us to perceive "in color" or in a specific shape or spatial arrangement the music or other sounds, days of the week or months of the year, and even human personalities. Thus, synesthesia is the involuntary and automatic balanced perceptual association of two or more senses. It is believed that this specific neuro-talent manifests to a varying degree about 5 percent. of us, and it can come in as many as 150 different forms. Although it is difficult to reliably assess, because perception is subjective, and you can live with synesthesia and not notice it - not realizing that you are experiencing something unusual. Among these forms, there is also one where sounds cause tactile sensations. It happens at the level of the brain where the information from the receptors is being associated.
Mr. Inkblot’s Academy” came to my mind for a reason - reading poetry, similarly to hallucinogens, induces synesthesia, which is partly genetic and is associated with the hyperactivity of the serotonergic system. Serotonin as you know - is the pleasure hormone. How much depends on us and how much depends on the very nature of the stimulation? Do we have anything to look for in "ASMR videos" if we are suffering from stress, depression, or insomnia? It depends. Individuals capable of ASMR have been assigned specific personality traits. In 290 people declaring sensitivity to ASMR stimulation and 290 individuals in a control cohort, a study was conducted to analyze the five-factor personality model (PMO for short), including neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Experience has shown that the first of these cohorts scored significantly higher in openness to experience and neuroticism, and significantly lower in conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness.

People capable of ASMR were also tested using the Toronto Mindfulness Scale test (this is the first questionnaire to measure the degree of mindfulness -i.e. an ability to focus attention on internal and external stimuli present at the moment, a process today on the fringes of scientific psychology, even more, popular therapeutically than ASMR). This scale aims to capture two key elements of mindfulness: the self-regulation of attention and disengaged awareness, which is characterized by curiosity, acceptance, and openness to experience. In the only rigorous study conducted, ASMR-positive individuals scored significantly higher on this scale than those in the control group. This suggests that the former are more aware than those who do not experience ASMR. However, studies are showing that it is precisely surrendering to the "ASMR spell" that limits the focus on a task, so it is better to succumb to it before going to sleep than before "combat tasks".

Common triggers for this bizarre sensation are watching someone whisper, engaging in repetitive rhythmic movements, and exploring an object. Some authors, based on their research, suggest that ASMR can temporarily relieve symptoms of depression, stress, and chronic pain in a manner similar to mindfulness meditation, which is increasingly used in psychotherapy.

Whispered sales. Literally

Even if it only helps some, ASMR is the biggest trend in social media today, growing by as much as 200% year on year. Still, a very common question about ASMR on Google search is "What is ASMR?". On YT, millions subscribe to the channels of the famous "ASMRtists" such as Bob Ross, who loudly and very pleasantly mixes paints on a palette and puts them on canvas, and equally pleasantly talks about the image he creates in a soft voice. It is hard to believe that the videos put on the Internet were recorded ... over 30 years ago! They’re from the TV show "Joy of Painting" from 1983-to 1994. Today the YT channel is created by amateurs of painting whispering in line with ASMR, who use the slogan: "Keeping The Bob Ross Dream Alive".
Bob Ross in his studio. Photo Acey Harper / Getty Images
Heather Feather, a pioneer in this industry, also whispers in a childish voice in the video, which already had 2.5 million views, and is intended to put one to sleep. For her, ASMR is an extraordinary experience, similar to when someone is playing with her hair or "writing" gently with fingers on her back. In turn, the YouTuber ASMR GentleWhispering, with her whisper perfected, undoubtedly also in a synthetic way, sells a so and so jewelry. Result: 2.5 million subscribers!

Jewelry is one thing, but the true leader in marketing supported by ASMR on social media is the cosmetics industry. The authors of all kinds of online tutorials, setting trends in makeup, use the specific, soothing, and boosted sounds of moving the makeup brush over the skin, or the effects of gentle tapping with perfectly groomed and embellished nails. On a different note: would we refuse the sweets advertised using ASMR which cause a "tingling of silky smooth pleasure" in consumers when they’re eating them? In 2015, the Chinese were encouraged to pick Dove chocolate with a spot constructed in this way. The business trend visible on YT is also creating or rebranding a brand usingASMR. It’s based on the principle: "no matter what, as long as it works", because a whisper about blacksmithing, even an artistic one, still sounds grotesque.

Despite the focus on cosmetics, jewelry, and food, ASMR content is of equal interest to women and men, although younger recipients, up to 30 years are the most interested in it. Most of them are also attracted to content related to beauty and fitness. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that they are also largely leaning towards high-tech products and games. People interested in ASMR on the Internet are more than twice as likely to be in the market for technology products such as laptops, mobile phones, and game consoles. There are also ASMR game channels on YouTube - a kind of antidote to fast video games.

The intensity of ASMR depends on various characteristics of the stimuli. The most effective triggers last from 1 to 5 minutes, are viewed in a pleasant environment, contain an object that is perceived as realistic, and require careful exploration of the object. Low-pitched sonic triggers are found to be more reliable in triggering ASMR than visual stimuli.

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An online questionnaire among people capable of ASMR showed that for 80 percent of participants, the phenomenon has a positive effect on their mood. Among those who obtained medium or high values on Beck's self-assessed depression scale, 69 percent. reported that the use of ASMR alleviates their symptoms of depression. Among the respondents with chronic pain, 42% concluded that ASMR helps them, and the pain relief was statistically significant and sustained for 3 hours after ASMR. Observations indicate that ASMR can not only elicit subjective positive emotions but also objective physiological responses: it reduces the heart rate and increases skin conductivity (a measure used to measure emotional arousal).

There is a dispute among scientists dealing with the subject as to how much ASMR creates a placebo effect. One rabbi says one thing and the other one another- and they both have experiments to prove it, yet still a few and done on a few people. So we’re dealing with alleged benefits for anxiety, insomnia, and especially pain relief and mood enhancement. However, without further research in clinical and laboratory settings, ASMR cannot be considered a therapeutic option.

Regardless of how exactly ASMR works, there is clearly a huge, engaged, and the growing audience responding to it. But with "cerebral orgasm" it can be just like the real one. 100 years ago, we didn’t have a name for it, and now we have a nice Chinese-American pseudo-science acronym that sounds good and is making a career. Sound or visual effects, causing a pleasant tingling on the neck and scalp, were already known to the first radio broadcasters, and even before them to composers and music performers from ancient times, and even to shamans in the Neolithic period.

– Magdalena Kawalec-Segond
–Translated by Sally Jastrzębska

Main photo: Sound simulation is sometimes called "brain orgasm," although there is no eroticism in ASMR movies. The photo shows a poster of the 1970 Swedish porn film "Karlekens alla sprak" (All Together Now). Photo Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images
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