The Science of ASMR And Slime : Short Wave The science is nascent and a little squishy, but researchers like Giulia Poerio are trying to better understand ASMR — a feeling triggered in the brains of some people by whispering, soft tapping, and delicate gestures. She explains how it works, and tells reporter Emily Kwong why slime might be an Internet fad that is, for some, a sensory pleasure-trigger.

The Squishy Science Behind ASMR

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with our very own SHORT WAVE reporter and sometimes-host Emily Kwong. Greetings, Emily Kwong.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: (Whispering) Hi, Maddie.

SOFIA: (Whispering) Hi, Emily.

KWONG: (Whispering) Hello.

SOFIA: (Whispering) Why are we whispering?

KWONG: (Whispering) Because today's episode is about ASMR.

I'm getting out of whisper mode for a moment (laughter)...

SOFIA: Great, it was creeping me out.

KWONG: ...And explain - me, too - with a quick story from a scientist in the U.K. named Giulia.

GIULIA POERIO: My name is Giulia Poerio. I am - God, I haven't thought about my age - I'm 31.

KWONG: Giulia is about to start lecturing at the University of Essex this winter, and she still remembers vividly being a little girl. Occasionally, she would get this very distinct feeling in certain situations.

POERIO: Really early examples would be things like watching my mom brush her hair or put her makeup on, getting my feet measured for school shoes, a teacher explaining something to me really carefully...

KWONG: And Maddie, in situations like these, she would enter this trance-like state of relaxation.

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POERIO: The feeling itself is a warm, tingling sensation that starts at the crown of the head, almost like bubbles under the scalp...

SOFIA: That's not where bubbles go.

POERIO: ...And can spread throughout the rest of the body - so down the spine and through the limbs.

KWONG: That brain-tingling feeling experienced by some people is called ASMR - autonomous sensory meridian response - a psychophysiological experience reliably triggered by certain things like whispering, personal attention, soft voices - a whole host of things.

SOFIA: So today on the show, ASMR researcher Giulia Poerio helps us explain the science behind this sensation.

KWONG: And we ask - does this have anything to do with the slime trend oozing across the Internet?

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIME CRACKLING)

SOFIA: I don't like it.

KWONG: It's coming for you, Maddie Sofia.

(LAUGHTER)

KWONG: OK. So Maddie...

SOFIA: Yes, ma'am.

KWONG: ...Our tour guide through the world of ASMR is Giulia Poerio. We're going to hear from her in a bit. She is a real-life person who experiences ASMR...

SOFIA: A real live one.

KWONG: ...And researches it. ASMR is not exactly a big field of scientific study, and it's only been a thing in public discussion for about a dozen years. That's about when, in 2007, people began to find each other and build communities online, calling this feeling they had ASMR.

SOFIA: So these people just like get really Zen'd (ph) out by whispering?

KWONG: There is a whole host of different triggers for different people. It could be whispering, soft tapping, rustling of paper. There seems to be a visual component to all of this but not always. Things like slow movements, delicate hand gestures can induce an ASMR experience. One of the most popular ASMRtists on YouTube - that's what the people who make these ASMR are videos online are called - is ASMR Darling. Here she is quietly touching a little house made of Legos with her fingernails.

(SOUNDBITE OF FINGER NAILS TAPPING LEGOS)

SOFIA: Uh-huh, yeah.

KWONG: Here she is unwrapping a Starburst.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY WRAPPER RUSTLING)

SOFIA: Yeah. That is a Starburst being unwrapped.

KWONG: And my personal favorite - here she is counting down slowly in a whisper from a thousand.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

ASMR DARLING: One thousand, 999, 998...

SOFIA: These videos, they get millions of views on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

SOFIA: Nine-hundred ninety-six...

KWONG: When you and I hear this, we hear it. But for some people, they feel it. And that's what happens for Giulia and those who experience ASMR.

POERIO: It's a little bit like music-induced chills or awe-inspired chills. So sometimes, you know, if you hear an amazing speech, like a Martin Luther King speech, you might get those kind of - those goose bumps, those shivers up your spine, which is a really kind of complex, emotional aesthetic response that some people experience and other people don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

ASMR DARLING: ...Nine-hundred eighty-five, 984...

SOFIA: So this is a young woman doing this. And you're, like, looking at her face, and she's really close to the camera. It seems very intimate. Is this like - is this a sex thing, Kwong?

KWONG: To be honest, that was my initial thought, too. I don't experience ASMR. But Giulia said, based on studies she's done monitoring those who do, ASMR is not the feeling of getting turned on.

POERIO: In our research, we of course measured people's heart rates. And on average, heart rate decreased when people watched ASMR videos, which is exactly the opposite of what you would expect if it was somehow a sexually arousing feeling.

SOFIA: I don't know why, but that makes me feel better about it.

KWONG: It is. It's something else.

SOFIA: So if it's not, like, this sexual feeling, what is it? Like, in the brains of people who experience it, what's going on?

KWONG: We don't actually know what is happening, truly, in the brains of people who experience it - nor how many people experience it at all. The important thing to know here is there isn't a ton of scientific research on this topic. There is one study, though, that really interested Giulia. It's a 2016 paper by Canadian researchers that looked at the brains of people who experience ASMR when their brains were in a restful state - basically, not doing anything - and they looked at this specific network within the brain.

POERIO: Something called the default mode network, which is associated with things like daydreaming and mind wandering and also self-referential thought. And what they found was that - essentially, that they thought that the brain network activity at rest shows that they're less able to inhibit sensory and emotional responses.

KWONG: Basically, they were less able to separate the link between what their senses are picking up and what they're feeling in their bodies. Sensory emotional experiences weren't as suppressed.

SOFIA: OK. That makes sense to me. They experience their senses in a different way then, like, I experience my senses or something like that.

KWONG: Kind of. Like I said, this is one of many early studies. And what's also interesting is how people are experimenting with new ASMR triggers on the Internet. Remember the oozing I mentioned earlier?

SOFIA: Yeah, I remember that. It was unfortunate.

KWONG: I have with me, in my hand, something that produces sound. And I'm going to introduce it to you.

SOFIA: Ugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIME SQUISHING)

SOFIA: (Laughter) You took that out with a nice little bit of flair.

KWONG: So what I'm holding in my hand is slime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIME CRACKLING)

SOFIA: Oh, my God.

KWONG: Floam technically - slime with little foam pieces inside. Do you hear that?

SOFIA: Yeah, I can hear it.

KWONG: Well in the last few years, there's been a boom in videos of people manipulating slime.

SOFIA: Yeah.

KWONG: It'll have color or glitter or charms mixed into it. People have gotten very creative with their slimes. It's fun to play with, and it also has a sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIME CRACKLING, SLURPING)

KWONG: Not doing it for you?

SOFIA: No, it's not. It's doing something different (laughter).

KWONG: In fact, you are shrinking in your seat, trying to get as far away from me as possible.

SOFIA: I don't like it.

KWONG: You want to play with it?

SOFIA: I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIME SQUEAKING)

SOFIA: Why did you give me...

KWONG: Excuse you.

SOFIA: Why did you give me the fart one?

KWONG: I brought this in because if you search #ASMR on Instagram right now, guess how many posts come up.

SOFIA: Six?

KWONG: Seven-point-six million.

SOFIA: Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

KWONG: And the vast - not vast majority but a number of them are videos of people doing exactly what you're doing right now - just manipulating slime and making these satisfying, squishy sounds.

SOFIA: Are there groups of people who experience anti-ASMR? Like, instead of feeling soothed right now, I feel very unsettled, and my belly hurts.

KWONG: That would be called misophonia - different episode. We wanted to ask our scientist, Giulia, if slime is a bona fide trigger for ASMR.

POERIO: I mean, I guess there are parallels. Probably people who experience ASMR would experience ASMR when they're watching things like slime videos. However, one thing I would say is that actually there's been quite a lot of interlocking between different kind of trends. So ASMR and slime and things like mukbang have all kind of...

KWONG: Side note - mukbang, started in South Korea, it broadcasts people eating food while talking to their audience with high-quality microphones.

SOFIA: What a nightmare.

KWONG: The Internet.

POERIO: Slime and things like mukbang have almost piggybacked on to the ASMR trend. So...

KWONG: Sure. We're under the sometimes category on the Internet of oddly satisfying.

POERIO: Yeah, all the #ASMR because I suspect it is piggybacking on ASMR as a kind of term to get people to watch videos.

KWONG: So when you see a video of someone, let's say, cutting soap or icing a cookie, someone playing with really pretty slime - that may be oddly satisfying, but if you don't have the brain tingles, it's not ASMR that's talking to you.

At the same time, Giulia said that the more ASMR is linked to things like slime videos, that could change what it means for people on the Internet. She's focused, though, on the world of science, and has a lot of outstanding questions. Why do some people experience it and others don't? Why do some people experience it at a higher intensity than others? And also - and this is really interesting to me - what is the effect of ASMR on sleep?

POERIO: So we know, anecdotally, that people who experience ASMR use these videos on YouTube to help them go to sleep. And I guess a question is - well, why? Why does ASMR help you go to sleep? And another important question with regards to sleep is, you know, does it not only help you get to sleep but does it also improve the quality of your sleep?

KWONG: So for some people...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIME SQUEAKING)

KWONG: ...This might be like the modern day version of counting sheep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: (Laughter) Who says counting sheep?

KWONG: One thousand, 999, (whispering) 998...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: Thanks again to Giulia Poerio in the U.K. And special thanks to Emmanuel Johnson and NPR's Vanessa Castillo for their help on this episode.

SOFIA: And thank you, Emily Kwong, reporter for SHORT WAVE here at NPR Science Desk and sometimes slimy host of SHORT WAVE.

KWONG: (Whispering) You're welcome.

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Come back tomorrow to hear my trip into the rainforest of Washington state, where we swing from the trees with a pioneering scientist who researches the canopy. It's a whole nother world up there, and she wants to get more female scientists into it. That's tomorrow on SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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