July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
DACHER KELTNER Tingling sensations going down your neck, into your back. Feelings of warmth, connectedness, ease. You may even have memories of this. 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 online videos offering ASMR experiences, and scientists are getting into the game and try to figure out what it is and what its therapeutic benefits are. Our guest today, Melinda Lauw, is an ASMR immersive theatre performance artist in New York City. Today Melinda’s going to help us understand a bit more about what ASMR is, and then we’ll look into the small but growing body of science behind it. Melinda, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
MELINDA LAUW Hi, Dacher. It’s my pleasure to be on here. Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER How were you first introduced to ASMR, Melinda?
MELINDA LAUW This is going to sound very strange, but my first memory of it was actually from 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 this 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 expand 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 like ocean waves. It’s just a soothing sensation that puts people to sleep. It’s the opposite of that feeling when you hear like 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. Like 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? Like 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 start 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, you know, hands rubbing together.
DACHER KELTNER I have a friend who gets ASMR by watching chiropractor videos. Where you, just by 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. Here’s some crinkling. I also have this cardboard box, and 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’s now over 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube alone, and I imagine 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 sign 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 is 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. 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, and 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 in 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 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. The people. Everything just feels a bit overwhelming.
DACHER KELTNER So, Melinda, I mean, 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. Because of our role playing, very intimate scenarios. And they’re usually female performers. And that’s something that, it’s unfortunate that a lot of people like misunderstand, understand the intention of ASMR.
DACHER KELTNER I agree.
MELINDA LAUW But that is a small subset of the community that that you would think that ASMR is arousing and that that whole genre is actually called ASMR Erotica. Yeah, 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 like 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 going to manifest here. You know, one of the things people really interested in the science of happiness is all of these different practices that we talk about, right. You know, mindfulness, gratitude, getting outdoors, experiencing awe, laughing, touch, you know, social connection. And there’s work showing that out of the University of Sheffield that, you know, having practices with ASMR kind of calms your cardiovascular system to the same extent as mindfulness meditation. Right. You what do you make of that kind of finding?
MELINDA LAUW I think that 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, is that 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, you know, one of the things we really take very seriously on the Greater Good Science Center and on the show is, you know, 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 Whisper Lodge. 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 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 that people used to refer to this 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 is your shoelace and what’s it 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 ASMR triggers,” or something. It’s like a trigger finder video where they’ll just cycle through a whole range of different sounds and then that’s a good way to find what sounds work for you and then from there then you can start looking for more customized content for yourself. Once you turn on your awareness for it and you’re looking for it. Then you 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 like 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 just not there yet. It might be. I hope it becomes. 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 a, like an add-on thing. That’s what I see.
DACHER KELTNER And where do you think ASMR will be in 10 years? Fifteen years?
MELINDA LAUW You know, I predicted that that ASMR will just kind of die off after a while, like it 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 we’ll 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? Well in one case, she decides to take it to the lab.
GIULIA POERIO I really just wanted to kind of do this series of studies that try and convince people that this is a real thing. That people who say that they have ASMR are not just making it up.
DACHER KELTNER 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, who’s a research lecturer, began studying the effects ASMR on the mind and body. Her first study was a large online survey.
GIULIA POERIO We categorized people into two kind of categories. So 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.
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… And we ask people to self-report on 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 was instructed to self-select 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 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, well, okay. is that potentially a meaningful reduction in heart rate or, you know, 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, you know, not only does this support anecdotal claims that, okay, 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 Have you ever experienced ASMR? Share your experience by emailing us at greater at berkeley.edu or using the hashtag, “Happiness Pod.”
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness. Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producers are Annie Berman and Ariella Markowitz, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.