There is no denying that ASMR has become a sensation across social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube. Gone are the days that we enjoyed listening to how to make mac and cheese - here right now are the sounds of mac and cheese being stirred. And millions of people are gobbling it up.
Researchers have begun digging into this phenomenon—from the tingle of the brain to the sense of calm that follows, as described by the ASMR-er that started it all in 2010. Meanwhile, pet parents and lovers can’t help but wonder, do pets experience ASMR?
What is ASMR?
If you’re new to the ASMR scene, ASMR or "autonomous sensory meridian response" is a sensation of well-being or calmness that might start as a tingle on your scalp or the sides of your neck and move down your spine. Triggers of ASMR include auditory, tactile, or visual stimuli—like gentle whispering, the tearing of paper, or soft, repetitive hand movements.
So, what exactly is happening to ASMR reactive brains when they hear acrylic nails tapping? A 2018 study led by the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College hooked ten participants up to fMRI machines and played ASMR videos to answer that question.
The study found that when participants felt the brain tingle of ASMR, their frontal lobe in the limbic system lit up—correlating ASMR to the part of the brain that controls emotion and empathy. Basically, researchers found that the sights and sounds of ASMR stimulate reward and emotional arousal and may provoke the release of dopamine.
Can Pets Experience ASMR?
Researchers of the study compared ASMR triggers and the brain’s response to that of grooming in animals. More broadly, ASMR has a similar response in the brain as musical frission (also known as chills), social engagement, and affiliative behaviors (like grooming, head butting, or tail wagging in pets).
And the limbic system that lights up when humans react to ASMR? Pets have one too. “Yes, they have a limbic system, but there are also very big differences,” says Dr. Rogier Mars, Ph.D., Associate Professor, and lead investigator at Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Oxford.
“A lot of our brain is organized around the fact that primates are adapted to moving through the trees and using their hands and are predominantly visual animals. Cats’ and dogs’ way of living is very different, and their brain organization is likely to reflect this,” he says.
What Mars is saying is that having the right parts of the brain is just one piece of the odd equation that triggers ASMR. The 2018 study also pointed to a strong sense of empathy and emotional response. We’re not really sure to what extent pets experience empathy and we know pets don’t experience emotions on the same level as humans do, but we do know pets grieve and can experience depression and anxiety.
So, can cats and dogs experience ASMR? Yeah, maybe.
Using ASMR to Reduce Anxiety and Promote Calmness in Pets
Not everyone reacts to ASMR. But humans that do experience ASMR report that it reduces stress, helps them sleep, and is downright relaxing. Studies even found that participants watching ASMR have similar physiological reactions as someone doing mindfulness meditation.
Music for cats and dogs is an active area of research, with studies pointing towards a preference for music that is biologically appropriate—that is, at the same frequency as a dog’s bark or a cat’s meow. Want to try ASMR at home for your cat or dog? Perhaps the chomping of kibble, the purr of a mama cat, or watching a pet groom its sibling will give your pet brain tingles and a sense of calm.
Janelle is a cat mum to two resident adventure kitties, Lyra and Atlas, and numerous cat and kitten fosters. Janelle and her furry family enjoy filling their days with hiking, kayaking, and seeking out the best cat-friendly destinations around the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Janelle, her adventure kitties, and adoptable fosters at @paws_pdx.