Carl W. Bazil, a sleep disorders specialist at Columbia University, says A.S.M.R. videos may provide novel ways to switch off our brains...“People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal,” he said. “Behavioral treatments — guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditation — are meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. A.S.M.R. videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.”
Bryson Lochte, a post-baccalaureate fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse who looked into A.S.M.R. for his senior thesis as a neuroscience major at Dartmouth College last year, has submitted his paper for publication in a scientific journal. Mr. Lochte said, “We focused on those areas in the brain associated with motivation, emotion and arousal to probe the effect A.S.M.R. has on the ‘reward system’ — the neural structures that trigger a dopamine surge amid pleasing reinforcements, like food or sex.
He compared A.S.M.R. to another idiosyncratic but well-studied sensation called musical frisson, which provokes a thrilling ripple of chills or goose bumps (technically termed piloerection) over one’s body in emotional response to music. Mathias Benedek, a research assistant at the University of Graz in Austria who co-authored two studies on emotion-provoked piloerection, says A.S.M.R. may be a softer, quieter version of the same phenomenon. “Frisson may simply be a stronger, full-blown response,” he said. And like A.S.M.R., the melodies that ignite frisson in one person may not in another.
Robert J. Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University who has also studied musical frisson, said that “the upshot of my paper is that pleasurable music elicits dopamine activity in the striatum, which is a key component of the reward system” in the brain. Writing in The New York Times last year, in an article titled “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing,” he notes, “What may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.”
Perhaps the everyday experiences that A.S.M.R. videos capture — whispering, crinkling, opening and closing of boxes — evoke similar anticipatory mechanisms, sparking memories of past pleasures that we anticipate and relive each time we watch and listen.