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Can listening to whispers help you relax and fall sleep?

Calming videos and podcasts can trigger what’s called ASMR — a deeply relaxing sensation — in some people.
Image: Relaxing at home
Autonomous sensory meridien response triggers a tingle sensation in the head and neck and can last for several minutes.Gary Burchell / Getty Images

When you listen to someone whispering, or get your hair cut or hear tapping or crinkling sounds, do you feel deeply relaxed, with tingles in your head and neck that run down your back and limbs? If so, you probably experience autonomous sensory meridien response (ASMR).

“ASMR is similar to the feeling of relaxation you get from a massage, but no one necessarily has to be touching you,” explains Craig Richard, Ph.D., professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy in Winchester, VA and founder of ASMR University. “It’s a deeply relaxing sensation, usually associated with pleasurable head tingles.”

ASMR researcher Beverley K. Fredborg compares ASMR to frisson, the chills you may get when listening to music. “It’s related, but not quite the same,” she says. “With ASMR the tingle sensation tends to be located in the head and neck and can last for several minutes. Frisson happens quickly, throughout the body.”

Bob Ross, whose Joy of Painting shows featured his soft voice and gentle paint strokes, is sometimes called the godfather of ASMR because watching his show triggered the experience for many people. That was the case for Dr. Richard, who was skeptical about ASMR until he recalled his own childhood experiences relaxing and dozing off while watching the show.

Can you feel it?

There’s not much research available on ASMR, but Dr. Richard estimates that 20 percent of people experience it strongly, and another 40 percent have a milder response. “If you would pay someone to play with your hair, you probably experience ASMR. If that seems crazy, you probably don’t experience ASMR,” he says.

Many people who experience AMSR don’t realize that other people feel it, too. Fredborg says she met a woman in her 50s who started crying when she realized there was a name for her sensation. “She thought there was something weird about her. She didn’t know other people experienced it,” Fredborg says.

Want to trigger a relaxation response?

Lots of people turn to ASMR videos or podcasts for health benefits – to help them relax, reduce anxiety and sleep better. “The ability to relax and to promote good sleep is a huge benefit, and there do not seem to be any obvious side effects,” says ASMR researcher Nick Davis.

Dr. Richard agrees, noting that there haven’t been reported downsides or problems linked to ASMR, except that sometimes the ability goes away temporarily if you trigger it too much. Taking a few days off gives it time to bounce back. Of course, if your need to relax or sleep better includes symptoms of anxiety or insomnia, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about treatment options.

If you’ve never experienced ASMR, it doesn’t seem likely that you can learn to have it. But if you have experienced it involuntarily and would like to trigger the sensation, there’s a whole genre of YouTube videos and podcasts you can watch or listen to.

Ilse Blansert, a Dutch ASMR artist behind the Waterwhisperers site, says in her introductory video, “Because everyone is different, everybody has different ASMR triggers.” While personal touch is a top trigger, it’s not necessary. Videos and podcasts work, too. Many of them feature:

  • Whispering
  • Crinkling or tapping sounds
  • Roleplaying situations with caring, personal attention, like a travel agent booking a trip for you
  • Watching someone do something slowly and with care, such as drawing, painting or opening a package

The Gentle Whispering YouTube channel leads the genre with more than 1.2 million followers, and the ASMR Podcast offers a host of audio-only ASMR triggers. There are a lot of different ASMR artists, and you may simply feel like you have a connection with one person or trigger but not another. “Be prepared to try a lot before you find that one video or podcast that suits you,” Richard says.

NEXT: What happens in your body and brain while you sleep

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