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There are millions of YouTube videos with people crinkling bubble wrap or whispering about folding laundry. Our guest talks about why autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) makes her, and many others, feel more calm and happy.
Today’s Science of Happiness Guests:
Melinda Lauw, is the co-creator of Whisperlodge, an immersive ASMR theater experience.
Check out some ASMR videos from Whisperlodge’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/Whisperlodge
Learn more about Whisperlodge: https://whisperlodge.nyc/
Follow Melinda on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/melinda.lauw/
Giulia Poerio is a psychology professor at the University of Essex who studies the effects of ASMR on the mind and body.
Learn more about her work: https://www.essex.ac.uk/people/poeri14804/giulia-poerio
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Tell us your thoughts about ASMR. Do you get tingly sensations? Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Leave us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/2p9h5aap
Melinda Lauw Hi everyone. My name is Melinda. I’ll see you soon. Bye!
Dacher Keltner Hi, I’m Dacher Keltner and this is The Science of Happiness. This week we’re replaying a favorite episode of ours, which is about whispering sounds and gentle touch, and why they make a lot of us happy.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, better known as ASMR, is a soothing sensation triggered by visual, audio, and physical stimuli. And in the last few years, interest in ASMR has exploded. There are millions of videos offering these experiences online, and scientists are getting into the game and trying to figure out what it is and what its therapeutic benefits are.
Giulia Poerio We found that people who say they experience ASMR show significant reductions in their heart rate when they watch ASMR videos.
Dacher Keltner More on ASMR, after this message from our sponsors. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Kelnter. Today we’re talking about ASMR— Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response—and how it can trigger a soothing sensation through visual, audio, and physical stimuli.
Our guest today, Melinda Lauw, is the co-creator of WhisperLodge, an immersive ASMR theater experience in New York. Melinda discovered ASMR when she was around 9 years old in Japan … while she was watching the TV show “TeleTubbies.”
Melinda Lauw Watching the Teletubbies on TV, there was this one scene where they zoomed out into the real world. And it was, they were showing this little kid drawing on paper and the sound of it was so nice. And I didn’t even know what was happening then. But I just know that I kept wanting to rewatch the episode.
Dacher Keltner How old were you when you had this experience?
Melinda Lauw Definitely under 10 years old.
Dacher Keltner Tell us what it is and how watching the Teletubbies scene gave this to you.
Melinda Lauw So ASMR is very broadly defined as a series of soothing sensations that can be triggered by a whole range of tactile audio and visual stimuli. And it is so broad because actually the feeling of ASMR is very subjective. In the community we call it tingles. Some people explain that as shivers down your spine are static like tingling throughout your body. For me, I feel like it’s a warm fuzziness in my head. Some people describe it as ocean waves.
It’s just a soothing sensation that puts people to sleep. It’s the opposite of that feeling when you hear nails scratching on the wall. That’s a really bad thought to put in people’s minds right now. But that feeling you get is a gut-wrenching impulse reaction. And ASMR is like that. It’s a reaction that you can’t control, but it’s super, super pleasurable.
Dacher Keltner How would you describe the subjective quality of the experience?
Melinda Lauw I think everyone agrees that it is very relaxing. That’s the first word that comes to mind. And then a lot of people use it to help them with anxiety or pain and sleeping problems. It’s something that people normally do by themselves in a private space.
Dacher Keltner So you have this early experience for Teletubbies and then where does it go from there? How do you start to have other forms of these experiences?
Melinda Lauw So from there then throughout my teenage life, there were specific moments where I would feel it in real life. Sometimes I’d get it in art class. And then I only really started getting into it when I had my first mobile phone and computer and I could go online and look for videos. So I used to watch a lot of instructional massage videos. Because I really liked the sound of skin. Like just hands rubbing together.
Dacher Keltner I have a friend who gets ASMR by watching chiropractor videos. Like just watching body adjustments gives him the chills.
Melinda Lauw Yeah, yeah.
Dacher Keltner So can you kind of give us a sense of a couple of different sounds that really strike you as strong ASMR elicitors?
Melinda Lauw Yeah. One of the most popular ASMR sounds is probably crinkling bubble wrap. I also had this cardboard box. It just has a really nice texture. So in a lot of AMSR videos they do lots of tapping sounds; It kind of sounds like rain. And inside this box, I actually have some pearls.
Dacher Keltner Wow. There are now over 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube alone, and I bet it’s going to keep growing. Melinda, why do you think there’s such a big interest in this online and right now?
Melinda Lauw I feel like especially for the younger generation, they are so used to doing everything online, they find love online, they get their groceries and shopping online. So why wouldn’t they also find relaxation online?
Dacher Keltner So you started Whisperlodge in 2017, which takes ASMR out of the online world and into a live theater setting. What should someone who goes to one of your events expect?
Melinda Lauw So WhisperLodge, it’s like a 90 minute immersive performance. And you get blindfolded on the street and brought inside very carefully by one of our guides and then you go through a series of ASMR treatment, as we call them.
You will enter in a space where only whispering is allowed. And each of our guides specializes in one specific type of ASMR.
They’re essentially playing out all the ASMR role plays that you see online. And then at the end we blindfold you again and we bring you out into the world. I wanted to make ASMR a real life thing because I am such a fan of immersive theater and I’ve been to so many shows where they have these really intimate one-on-one scenes. I just feel so incredibly like being seen and taken care of by that person. It just feels like super special to have a moment like that. And then I was able to kind of draw a connection there between what I enjoyed and immersive theater shows and what I enjoy in ASMR. And that’s the intimacy that’s being present with someone, receiving attention from someone.
Dacher Keltner You know, a lot of the work in this area is starting to show, with brief exposures to ASMR videos, people feel calmer, their heart rates slower. They still feel kind of aroused, their skin is a little sweaty. They actually feel less negative emotion. What do you see in your clients or your participants?
Melinda Lauw The main feedback that we get is that when we release them into the world, their awareness is just kicked up to another level. Because in the whole 90 minutes, we are completely whispering. There’s no talking. And all the sounds we make are like what I just did, like crinkling paper, that’s super soft. And after 90 minutes, you’re hearing levels just automatically adjust regardless of whether you like our characters, you like our story. It’s a bodily response that you can’t control. And so when you leave, there’s just this. Like especially in New York, you go out and the car sounds so much louder, and everything just feels a bit overwhelming.
Dacher Keltner So, Melinda, come on, isn’t this sounds really weird when you try to explain it to somebody. How do you make sense of it?
Melinda Lauw To people who don’t have ASMR, when you look it up online and you look at the videos, it is so easy to just associate it with like something sexual. A lot of our videos are role playing very intimate scenarios. And they’re usually female performers. And that’s something that it’s unfortunate that a lot of people misunderstand the intention of ASMR.
Dacher Keltner I agree.
Melinda Lauw But that is a small subset of the community that do think that ASMR is arousing and that that whole genre is actually called ASMR Erotica. Well, I personally don’t feel like we should shame anyone for what turns them on. I also feel like until ASMR is legitimized as a relaxing tool, focusing on the sexual parts of it is not really helping.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. And you know, people focus on sexual parts of everything. So it’s obviously going to manifest here. One of the things people are really interested in the science of happiness is all of these different practices that we talk about, mindfulness, gratitude, getting outdoors, experiencing awe, laughing, touch, social connection. And there’s work out of the University of Sheffield showing that, having practices with ASMR kind of calms your cardiovascular system to the same extent as kind of mindfulness meditation. What do you make of that kind of finding?
Melinda Lauw I think that’s amazing. Because then it’s validating ASMR. ASMR is often misunderstood. And when we do our performances, actually, I often also describe it as meditation without knowing that you’re doing meditation. I think that’s one of those benefits of ASMR. For people who are not buying into the whole wellness thing, this is like a quick and easy way you can do it at home for free.
Dacher Keltner So, one of the things we take very seriously in the Greater Good Science Center and on the show is the kind of practical, actionable insights you can get from scientific studies of phenomena like ASMR. You’ve been thinking about that when you develop this 90-minute experience at Whisperlodge. So when you contextualize it in terms of,”Wow, ASMR done in the right way gives you these feelings of calm and peace or positive emotion.” What are some sort of actionable lessons you pass on to your friends about? Like here’s what you can do with ASMR? Here’s how you can look for it or bring it into your life.
Melinda Lauw So through our whole practice of converting ASMR into this physical thing rather than online thing, we’ve realized that it’s actually all about paying attention. Before ASMR was called ASMR, there were actually lots of other names people used to refer to it online. One of them was Attention-Induced Euphoria. So from the very beginning, there was actually this understanding that ASMR is about paying attention to small sounds, small textures. And that’s something that everyone can do in your everyday life — just noticing what color your shoelace is and what it’s made out of? Or the sound of brushing your teeth when you’re brushing your teeth.
Dacher Keltner If you were to have this in a doctor’s office and hand out a prescription for ASMR? What else would it recommend?
Melinda Lauw I would recommend actually checking out one of the videos online. That’s like, “One hundred asymmetric triggers,” or something like a trigger finder video where they’ll just cycle through a whole range of different sounds. That’s a good way to find what sounds that work for you. Then from there, you can start looking for my more customized content for yourself. Once you turn on your awareness for it and you’re looking for it, then you will find it.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. Do you think this is going to turn into a kind of therapy in our culture?
Melinda Lauw I don’t know whether it’ll become like a thing that stands on its own because other wellness practices, like yoga and meditation, there’s so much science behind it and there’s like a lot of mainstream acceptance. And ASMR is not there yet. It might be. I hope it will. But I also can see that in the short term, a lot of wellness practitioners will probably try to incorporate it into their own practices. And so it will become like an add-on thing. That’s what I see.
Dacher Keltner Where and where do you think ASMR will be in 10 years? Fifteen years?
Melinda Lauw You know, I predicted that ASMR will just kind of die off after a while, I will just become this niche thing. But the world seems to be defying my expectations. People just keep wanting more and more of it. So, I don’t know. I hope the science will catch up and then will realize that this actually has medical benefits that we can actually call it therapy. That’s something I can’t do yet. So, yeah, I think it’s very hopeful.
Dacher Keltner Well, Melinda, thank you so much for being on our show, for being a radical artist who’s taking this really interesting physical sensation and turning it into artistic performance with WhisperLodge. And thanks for your interesting insights into this really striking human experience.
Melinda Lauw Thank you so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner What happens when a scientist experiences ASMR? Wow in one case, she decides to take it to the lab.
Giulia Poerio I really just wanted to kind of do a series of studies to try to convince people that this is a real thing, and people who say that they have ASMR are not just making it up.
Melinda Lauw More about the emerging science behind the benefits of ASMR, up next.
Giulia Poerio When I was a kid, I used to get kind of tingling, pleasant sensation at various points. And I would ask my sister if she got the same thing and she didn’t. So then I just assumed that I was completely weird and that it was just me. So I didn’t speak about it again.
Dacher Keltner She didn’t speak about it again until 2013. That’s when Giulia Poerio, a research lecturer in the University of Sheffield, began studying the effects of ASMR on the mind and body. Her first study was a large online survey.
Giulia Poerio We categorized people into two categories of people who said that they experience ASMR in their daily lives and people who didn’t.
Dacher Keltner Her team had everyone in the study watch a series of ASMR videos, like this one:
[Speaker] Speak in ASMR
Giulia Poerio And then some videos which looked like they might be ASMR videos, but weren’t. So they contained many of the things that people might associate with ASMR like instructional content, but they weren’t intended to trigger ASMR.
[Speaker] Speak regularly.
Giulia Poerio And we ask people to self-report their feelings after watching these videos.
Dacher Keltner Those who reported experiencing ASMR regularly, had frequent tingling, increased levels of both excitement and calmness, and decreased levels of stress and sadness.
Giulia Poerio So that was really a kind of a first step in saying, Okay, not only are people kind of saying to us anecdotally and through YouTube comments that this experience is very relaxing and tingling, but now we’ve got some good kind of empirical data supported by statistics to suggest that what they’re saying is on average true.
Dacher Keltner Guilia then brought people to her lab. Half the group experienced ASMR regularly, the other half didn’t. Everyone then self-selected videos that they thought would induce the sensation.
Giulia Poerio We said, “pick your favorite three minute segment of an ASMR video and we’ll show it to you in the lab.”
Dacher Keltner They then wired everyone up and measured heart rates both before and after watching the videos.
Giulia Poerio We found that people who say they experience ASMR show significant reductions in their heart rate when they watch ASMR videos.
Dacher Keltner Their heart rates decreased by about 3.14 beats per minute on average. People who didn’t normally experience ASMR also showed reduced heart rates, but not as much.
Giulia Poerio We were interested to see whether, is that potentially a meaningful reduction in heart rate or just does not really mean very much. So we looked for comparative values against things like mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques and also music therapy. And we found that reduction to be comparable with those other techniques. And what’s interesting is that not only does this support anecdotal claims, that people are telling us that they’re feeling relaxed and that there’s this and watching ASMR videos might have a beneficial effect, but their physiology is also pointing us in that same direction.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Have you ever tried ASMR? What was it like? Share your experience by emailing us at happiness pod at berkeley.edu or using the hashtag, “Happiness Pod.”
Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our associate producer for this episode is Annie Berman, Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.