What is ASMR? And What’s Bob Ross Got To Do With It?

Have you gone through life feeling a pleasant tingling in your head that seemed to be triggered by certain types of sounds and wondered what that was all about? No, neither have we, but this is a sensation that enough lucky individuals seem to experience that it has been given a name: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.

Not much is known about what causes ASMR or how many people experience it, but it has become a quiet internet and pop cultural phenomenon. If there’s one thing you can trust Google to do, it’s collect data on all of the trending behaviors that people don’t talk about. In a 2016 story, they reported that there were over 5 million ASMR videos on YouTube, with 200% year over year growth in 2015. Searches for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” on YouTube outnumbered searches for “chocolate” and “candy.”

These millions of YouTube videos are meant to trigger ASMR, and to do so, the “stars” — some of them have truly developed large followings — speak in soft voices, emphasize specific consonants and generate gentle crackling sounds. Perhaps coincidentally, most of them feature young women in the role of the whisperer. For those who have ASMR first-hand, this wealth of content is a boon of cranial delight, but among the many people whose brains don’t tingle at the sound of crumpling paper, there is an undercurrent of skepticism that this relatively unstudied phenomenon is just an excuse to watch creepy videos of young women whispering sweet nothings. We withhold judgment.

Right alongside these “ASMRtists”, however, is Bob Ross, whose gentle voice and rustle of brushes hitting the canvas have also frequently been reported to trigger the tingling sensation. This gentle giant of home painting is also often mentioned as a source of pleasure to cannabis users, and so we turned to Craig Richard, professor at Shenandoah University, founder of ASMR University, author of Brain Tingles, and one of the few scientists researching this sensation, to learn more about ASMR and whether it has a relationship to cannabis.

How do ASMR and cannabis (particularly the compound THC) trigger parts of the brain similarly? How do they work differently? Does this relate to the fact that similar sounds seem to be pleasurable to those who experience ASMR and those who have consumed THC?

Cannabis, and other substances that stimulate the same receptors as cannabis, have been shown to affect the brain by increasing endorphins (pleasure), dopamine (desire), and oxytocin (relaxation). Although it is not currently known how ASMR affects the brain, it is likely that these same brain molecules are released during ASMR. This explains the general similarities of feeling slight euphoria and deep relaxation while experiencing cannabis or ASMR.

It is unlikely though that ASMR and cannabis stimulate the brain and body in the exact same way because cannabis tends to increase heart rate and ASMR has just been shown to decrease heart rate.

Additional sensations that are common to ASMR are pleasurable brain tingles, sometimes called brain orgasms, which do not seem to be consistently reported with cannabis use.

Do you think that cannabis can be used to enhance (or suppress) the sensation in someone who experiences ASMR? How might the two interact with each other?

There are some anecdotal data about the interaction of ASMR and cannabis. I found about 15 discussion threads on Reddit that had a total of 66 individuals commenting about the effect of cannabis on their ASMR. The majority, 65%, shared that cannabis had an enhancing effect on their ASMR, 27% shared that cannabis decreased their ASMR or had no effect on their ASMR, and 8% shared that they had mixed experiences.

The variety of these responses could be related to the frequency or dose of cannabis use. One study showed that chronic use of THC decreased oxytocin, which is probably a key player in ASMR.

What would you recommend a person do if they want to know if they are able to experience ASMR?

The most common location that people report experiencing ASMR is at home in their own beds at night. This is because ASMR is best triggered when someone is in a comfortable location, in a relaxed physical state, and in a calm mental state.

Another important factor for someone new to ASMR is to try many ASMR triggers until they find ones that they find relaxing. This is similar to going to a large food buffet and sampling widely to find the food items you like the best. I recommend trying many ASMR videos and ASMR podcasts until you find the triggers that relax you the most.

I’ve written a book titled, Brain Tingles, that goes into much more detail about how to experience ASMR and also how to best stimulate ASMR in others.

Are there any other interesting commonalities between ASMR and cannabis you’d like to talk about?

There is a curious fact about ASMR that your readers may find interesting. The ASMR subreddit was created in 2011 by the reddit user named “MrStonedOne.”


Dr. Richard left us with a recommendation for the aptly named The ASMR Podcast, which features the work of a variety of ASMRtists and offers a good alternative to the rabbit hole of millions of YouTube videos.

If ASMR is a part of your life, and especially if you think that cannabis and ASMR do interact, we’d love to hear about your experience. Send us a message on Facebook. And sign up for our newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox once a week.